How Kris Dunn's life journey has prepared him to battle NBA adversity
The Bulls point guard is used to things not going his way. He's ready to prove the doubters wrong
It was, on the grand scale of what Kris Dunn has been through in his life, merely one more bump in his bumpy road.
After all, Dunn had made it to a place nearly none of his cohorts had made it to, and achieved the dream that millions of other American teenagers had not. He'd become a lottery pick, the fifth pick of the 2016 NBA Draft by the up-and-coming Minnesota Timberwolves. He was a millionaire at age 22.
Then the season began. And the roller coaster that has been Kris Dunn's life took another dip.
"Making it to the NBA is a dream for sure, but staying in the NBA is the big thing," Dunn said recently.
And during long stretches of that rookie season in Minnesota, it didn't look like he'd be staying in the NBA all that long. In one game he turned the ball over five times in 14 minutes. What's worse, he didn't seem to be improving over the course of the season. In the final month of the season, he made only four threes, making them at an ugly 21 percent rate. Over the course of the season he averaged 17.1 minutes, 3.8 points and 2.4 assists, with shooting statistics that didn't inspire confidence: Less than 30 percent from three, and only 37.7 percent from the field.
The fit in Minnesota didn't seem great. It was the first time in Dunn's life that he was coming off the bench, and he was frustrated: A fierce competitor who knew he could compete with the guys out there.
But if there's anyone whose life journey makes him ready to battle NBA adversity, it's Dunn. Dunn's childhood was impossibly difficult. He and his older brother, John, lived with his single mother, Pia Dunn. When Dunn was in fourth grade, his mother spent most of the year in jail while Dunn and his brother lived by themselves in a two-bedroom apartment, stealing food just to get by. Then his father located him, brought him to his home in Connecticut, and gave Dunn the structure he needed.
If you thought this was where his life became a fairy tale, you're wrong. He committed to Providence as the highly-regarded savior of the program. He had surgery on a torn labrum in his right shoulder before even enrolling. And then, during an exhibition game before his sophomore year, he collided with an opponent and felt that same shoulder pop: The same surgery, ending his second collegiate season before it really began. He went through the whole dreary rehab process again: Learning how to lift weights again, how to dribble again, how to shoot again, how to make an impact even in a practice, much less in a game. Meanwhile, as Dunn was working his way toward the NBA, his mother passed away at age 50.
So when he struggled his rookie season, he knew how to stay positive.
And when he was traded to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason -- a deal that sent Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves and brought the Bulls Dunn, a still-injured Zach LaVine, and the pick that would become Lauri Markkanen -- he heard the criticisms. Conventional wisdom said that the Bulls got fleeced. That was a direct insult to Dunn, who pundits saw as an older rookie who looked outmatched on the court and whose ceiling wasn't particularly high.
"Whatever people say, it won't get to me," Dunn said. "You can say it to my face: It won't get to me. I've been through way more actual life adversity than people writing stuff. That's their opinions. I know what I can bring to a team. I know my game. It's all about putting the work in.
"I could have been down on myself. But that summer, I just worked even harder. Because in life, things ain't going to go your way. You just gotta figure a way to fight your way out of it. In life, me and my brother and my family, we did that. That was one of the toughest things we had to do. Basketball? That's just my job. When things don't go your way, don't pout. Just find another way to get out of the situation."
It turns out that the situation led him to a place that's a perfect fit for a young and developing player. Dunn has been everything his supporters expected him to be when he was drafted so high. He's averaging 13.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals. He's making a third of his threes. His overall field-goal percentage is seven percentage points higher than a season ago. A few nights ago, in a road win over the Dallas Mavericks, Dunn scored a career-high 32 points on 4 of 5 3-point shooting, and added nine assists and four steals.
The once-mocked Jimmy Butler trade Nikola Mirotic has opened up the floor for players like Dunn.for the Bulls. Dunn has been a catalyst for a Bulls team that's been a surprising 11-6 over the past month. Markkanen is averaging 14.9 points per game, and the adept 3-point shooting of Markkanen and
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who was once one of the top 3-point shooters in the NBA, has worked with Dunn on his shooting. He's working on his body position and his shooting form, specifically trying to keep the ball away from his chest when he shoots. He's focused on his balance and having a consistent release point. And he's been more adept at creative scoring near the rim, trying to get into big men's bodies, scoring with floaters and up-and-unders to get around the defenders. Hoiberg's offense rewards aggressiveness and confidence, so Dunn knows that an open shot is always considered a good shot.
"Kris has really grown since we got him, and he's really developed into our go-to guy late in games," Hoiberg said. "When we had that seven-game winning streak, he was the one making the clutch plays in a lot of those games. He hasn't shown any fear. The biggest thing early with Kris was consistency on both ends of the floor, and he's really grown in that area. That's a thing that we're going to continue to harp on with him for a guy who has developed into that closer role, to have the overall consistency every time he's on the court. He's really bought in. He's a student of the game, watches more film than probably anyone on the team. Every game after he gets his minutes he watches on his own, watches with a coach and then the team film sessions. And he's really done a good job of handling the constructive criticism and making the necessary corrections."
Part of the correction for Dunn has been staying aggressive while not always trying to make the home-run play. That's long been an Achilles heel for his game, and has led to too many turnovers. What Hoiberg and his staff have drilled into Dunn is trying to make it more simple.
And so far, the move from Minneapolis to Chicago has worked better than anyone could have hoped.
"Nobody wants to get traded, but at the same time, I understood I was going to be in a better situation, being with younger guys, being able to develop my game," Dunn said. "I was angry, but at the same time I was like this was a restart. The coaching staff believes in me, my teammates believe in me, so my confidence is even higher than it was in Minnesota. I'm just a lot more comfortable."
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