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Kris Dunn
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Kris Dunn, under cascade of bust talk and Bulls demotion, mounting strong defense

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Kris Dunn‘s rookie year with the Timberwolves was glum.

Losing. Shaken confidence. Minutes on the wing rather than his preferred position of point guard.

But when I first talked to Dunn about that season, he spoke almost with a pride about the experience.

He persevered. He advanced. And he was getting his opportunity.

It was late in the 2017-18 season. The Bulls had acquired Dunn from Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler trade the previous summer. Chicago was as desperate at point guard as Dunn was to play the position. The Bulls had been muddled at point guard ever since Derrick Rose got hurt. Jerian Grant, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams and Cameron Payne each had turns as Chicago’s point guard du jour. As the extremely hyped No. 5 pick in the 2016 draft, Dunn looked more promising than any candidate yet.

But Dunn didn’t capitalize. He wasn’t good enough his first season with the Bulls and regressed last season. Chicago drafted Coby White and signed Tomas Satoransky at point guard last summer. Dunn said the Bulls didn’t even engage him in contract-extension talks.

Dunn looked like a bust who wouldn’t be long for Chicago.

Yet, Dunn is not only still there, he’s starting at small forward and making a real case for an All-Defensive team.

“When adversity hits,” Dunn said, “I don’t fold.”

Dunn surprisingly earned a rotation spot to begin the season. Then, when Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison got hurt, Bulls coach Jim Boylen shocked even Dunn by tabbing him as the replacement starting small forward.

“I ain’t a three,” Dunn said. “But I can hold my own.

“I’m not afraid of a challenge or anything. Whatever the team needs from me, that’s what I try to do. If they say, ‘Kris, we need you at the four,’ f— it. As long as I’m on the court, I love to play the game of basketball. And I’m going to do what I’ve got to do.”

Dunn said he “absolutely” still envisions becoming an NBA point guard. He views his current role as merely a product of what his team happens to need.

“It doesn’t take away what I’m capable of,” Dunn said. “I’m not going to let anything or anyone paint a narrative for me. I know I’m a point guard.”

I’m more skeptical. Dunn is a clunky outside shooter (26% on 3-pointers this season, 31% career). That’s a huge demerit for a lead guard to overcome.

But point guards tend to develop later than other positions. Dunn can attack the basket, and he’s a solid playmaker. If his shooting comes around, he has a chance.

In the meantime, Dunn is playing lights-out defense.

Among guards defensively, Dunn ranks second in real plus-minus (behind Alex Caruso), first in PIPM and second in RAPTOR (behind Donte DiVincenzo). If he keeps this up, Dunn must be taken seriously for an All-Defensive team.

Though he’s nominally a small forward, Dunn often defends the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, usually a guard. Unlike the bigger Porter, Dunn can take that burden off Zach LaVine and Satoransky.

Dunn – who’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan – has also thrived in Chicago’s aggressive and flowing defensive scheme. He has stolen the ball on 3.8% of opponents’ possessions, the highest steal percentage since Tony Allen.

Allen thrived in a different environment, though. Non-shooting defensive specialists have it harder than ever.

It seems telling, when listing Dunn’s offensive responsibilities, Boylen slipped in “defend at a high a level.”

Dunn’s defensive real plus-minus is +3.72. His offensive real plus-minus is 1.38. The difference between those marks – 5.10 – is one of the largest in the NBA. Nearly everyone else with a bigger spread between offensive and defensive real plus-minus are offensive-minded players.

Here are the players with the biggest differences between their offensive and defensive real plus-minus, the highest spread first. The right side of the bar marks the better rating. The left side of the bar marks the worse rating. Better offensive players are in black. Better defensive players are in red:

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Dunn will be a free agent next summer. The Bulls can make him restricted by extending a qualifying offer – a standing one-year offer a team must tender to preserve matching rights.

The cost of Dunn’s qualifying offer will be $4,642,800 or $7,091,457, depending on his role the rest of the season.

He’d get the higher qualifying offer by starting 19 of Chicago’s remaining 41 games or averaging slightly more than 24 minutes per remaining Bulls game. Dunn is currently averaging 24.8 minutes per game.

Sometimes, restricted status can get a player a bigger contract. It forces other teams to go over the top with an offer sheet. See a couple of Dunn’s teammates, Porter and Lavine. But it seems unlikely any team would covet Dunn enough to make that type of push for him.

So, a higher qualifying offer could help Dunn in one of two ways. He’d get a larger fallback salary if no other contract emerges. Or the Bulls would be less likely to extend a qualifying offer in the first place, making him unrestricted and allowing him more freedom to find a team that’ll use him at point guard.

Dunn expects to return to the bench once Porter gets healthy. That timeline could determine Dunn’s qualifying offer, though it’s also quite possible Chicago wouldn’t extend even the smaller qualifying offer.

Either way, Dunn’s defense is earning him playing time that’s useful in developing his offense.

“I hold myself at a high standard, and I want to be really good player in this league,” Dunn said. “And I have the abilities to do it. It’s just on honing my craft.”

Dunn, who’s averaging 7.2 points per game, isn’t hijacking the offense in a last-grasp attempt to prove himself. He lets Chicago’s other guards handle the playmaking and pitches in where he can – primarily defense. He’s doing exactly what the Bulls need from him.

“The biggest thing about Kris Dunn is he has a spirit for the team and a spirit for doing the right things,” Boylen said. “When you have that, good things happen to you.”

Heat’s Kendrick Nunn: ‘I definitely feel like I’m the Rookie of the Year’

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Just six players have gotten drafted outside the top 10 then won Rookie of the Year:

Kendrick Nunn wants to one-up them.

Undrafted last year, Nunn spent most of last season on the Warriors’ minor-league affiliate. He signed with the Heat late last season, but didn’t play, preserving his rookie status for this season.

Now, Nunn is flourishing and eying a big goal.

Stadium:

Nunn:

I definitely feel like I’m the Rookie of the Year. It’s early, but the way I’ve been performing, definitely, I’m in the running for that. And hopefully, I continue this throughout the season and win that award.

Nunn has a good chance. He ranks second among rookies in points (16.9), third in assists (3.3) and tied for second in steals (1.3) per game. There are some holes in his all-around game, but scoring usually carries the most weight, and Nunn also has the top true shooting percentage (57.8) among the top six rookie scorers.

There’s plenty of competition – including the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke, Knicks’ R.J. Barrett, Warriors’ Eric Paschall, Heat’s Tyler Herro and Hornets’ P.J. Washington. Another undrafted player, Raptors guard Terence Davis, deserves consideration. When No. 1 pick Zion Williamson gets healthy, he’ll have a chance to get back into the race.

But Nunn has at least earned credibility to talk about himself this way.

Report: Magic’s Nikola Vucevic out at least a month

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The Magic’s injuries have gone from silly to serious.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Orlando (6-8) is sputtering along in the middle of a mediocre Eastern Conference. Losing Nikola Vucevic will hurt, but it’ll be difficult to fall too far in this playoff race.

After having their best season in a while last year by staying mostly healthy, the Magic are facing new issues now. Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams are also banged up.

At least Orlando has a couple interesting options behind Vucevic at center. The No. 6 pick in last year’s draft, Mohamed Bamba has shown flashes but mostly struggled so far. He’s in line for a bigger role, and the 21-year-old will have no choice but to sink or swim. Khem Birch is more stable and just better at this point, but he’s more limited.

What a relief: Markelle Fultz shows progress in preseason

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DETROIT – Markelle Fultz left Washington as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. By the time he worked out for the 76ers, warning signs of a major problem had emerged.

Fultz spent the next 535 days – which were full of ugly shooting, finger pointing, surgery, deeply analyzed workout videos, biting reactions, blunt evaluations, yips talk, rumors, contradictory health assessments, distrust and even family drama – until Philadelphia announced last December he had been diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

“Just being injured and not knowing what it is was probably one of the most stressful things,” Fultz said. “Then, finding out what my injury was probably the biggest relief I ever had.”

The alleviation of tension is palpable.

Fultz beamed in the locker room after the Magic’s preseason win over the Pistons last night, joking with teammates and flashing big smiles. He talked about his passion for playmaking and relished this dunk:

The Magic’s two preseason games have been a coming-out party for Fultz, who hadn’t played an NBA game since November. Though his TOS diagnosis soothed him, outsiders still didn’t know what to make of it. There was initially word Fultz would return in 3-6 weeks. Fultz’s agent said the guard would return that season. Instead, Fultz missed the rest of the season, about four months. The 76ers traded him to Orlando during that absence. Another long offseason invited more questions.

But Fultz is back on the court showing signs of life. He had another big dunk against the Spurs, and his confidence appears to be growing as he goes. Even just against Detroit, Fultz played with more verve as the game progressed:

The bigger-picture outlook is in the eye of the beholder.

Fultz no longer looks overwhelmed on the court. He’s 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, but at least he’s taking them. That’s encouraging progress.

Sans a reliable outside shot, Fultz has taken to probing inside the arc. He dislodges and twists by defenders. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Fultz gets to his spots. He looks for short, sometimes turnaround, jumpers just outside the paint or sometimes tries to get all the way to the rim. He also keeps his head up, taking advantage of the passing angles his size and bumping create.

“He can throw every pass,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said, “which not that many guys can.”

Fultz has 11 assists in 38 minutes this preseason despite often playing with another point guard (Michael Carter-Williams or D.J. Augustin).

It’s an enjoyable style for someone who grew up watching a lot of And1 and misses the physicality of old-school basketball.

It’s not a style that lends itself to stardom.

Fultz was the top pick in large part because of his outside shooting. That’s a major missing piece of his game. Defenses will adjust in the regular season, let alone the postseason. Already, Fultz has eight turnovers in his 38 preseason minutes while dealing with tight spacing. Beyond those highlight slams, Fultz is also just 5-for-13 inside the arc. That won’t cut it.

This preseason, Fultz has yet to attempt a free throw – a prior bugaboo. That’ll be yet another test.

Fultz said he must manage his TOS the rest of his career – through strengthening, rehab, rest and massages. It’s too early to say what limitations he’ll face long-term. Maybe the Fultz we see now will resemble the player he’ll be the rest of his career. Maybe this is just the start until he rediscovers a full toolkit of skills.

He’ll get plenty of time to work on his game. The Magic exercised his $12,288,697 team option for 2020-21 more than a month before necessary, a move that looks justified two games into the preseason.

It’s far too soon to know how this story concludes, but after so many painful episodes, a happy ending is at least back on the table.

“I never doubted myself,” Fultz said. “I know the talent I had. I knew I had an injury. So, for me, all the outside noise of people talking, it never got to me, because I knew what I could do.”

Do you believe in Magic? They sure do

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Magic just had their best season in seven years. Orlando was buzzing. Management poured more than $160 million into keeping the roster intact.

All for a 42-40 team that lost 4-1 in the first round.

The Magic should feel good about their breakthrough season. They ended the longest playoff drought in franchise history.

But this summer showed major long-term commitment to a group that has proven capable of just moderate winning and lacks obvious upside.

The major investments: Re-signing Nikola Vucevic (four years, $100 million) and Terrence Ross (four years, $54 million). Vucevic was an All-Star last season, and Vucevic finished fifth in Sixth Man of the Year voting. They’re good players.

But Vucevic didn’t become an All-Star until his eighth season. Most players who make their first All-Star game so late in their career don’t return. He also plays center, where there’s a surplus of capable players. That’s an expensive price for his age-29-through-31 seasons.

Likewise, Ross will turn 29 next season. He’s a streaky scorer who flourished in a bigger role last season. I’m just not convinced he’ll keep it up to justify his price tag.

At least Orlando structured the contracts well. Like Aaron Gordon‘s terms signed the year before, Vucevic’s salaries declines throughout his deal. Ross’ increases in the second year then declines. That should help the players hold more value later.

In the meantime, the Magic want to keep winning now. They’re the only Eastern Conference playoff team to return every starter.

They also re-signed key backups Khem Birch (two years, $6 million) and Michael Carter-Williams (minimum) for reasonable value. That continuity could make the difference next season. Orlando really took off after Birch and Carter-Williams joined the rotation last season.

The Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu (three years, $29,162,700) to add depth. In a vacuum, I like that move. In Orlando, Aminu is another power forward on a team overloaded with bigs.

It’s already difficult enough to find proper opportunities for Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. Aminu only complicates matters. All three can play both forward spots. Maybe the Magic envision always having two interchangeable forwards on the floor, allowing them to maintain a style. But all three are better at power forward. There were probably better ways to allocate resources.

Signing Aminu with the mid-level exception necessitated stretching Timofey Mozgov to stay out of the luxury tax. That’s a not-small $5,573,334 cap hit each of the next three seasons.

Orlando drafted yet another power in the first round, Chuma Okeke at No. 16. But considering Okeke tore his ACL in March, the Magic could look quite different by the time he’s ready to contribute. They might get a long runway with him, as he has yet to sign his rookie-scale contract and could spend next season on a minor-league deal. Six years of team control, up from the usual five for a first-round pick, could matter significantly.

There are paths for Orlando to reach the next level – Gordon becoming a star, Isaac breaking out, Mohamed Bamba getting on track after a disappointing rookie year, Okeke getting healthy and proving correct the advanced models that rated him as a top prospect, Markelle Fultz rediscovering his form. None seem like great bets, especially because it might take a couple hits to propel this forward.

There’s a decent chance this summer’s spending works out. Winning increases the value of everyone involved. It creates flexibility not afforded to losing teams. And it’s just fun while it’s happening.

But I think it’s slightly more likely Orlando regrets locking into these players at those prices – that the Magic don’t win enough then head right back to the wrong side of mediocre while facing new long-term costs.

Offseason grade: C-