When the Timberwolves picked Kris Dunn 5th overall in last summer’s draft, he was the odds-on favorite to win the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year award.
According to a survey of 38 of his first-year peers conducted by NBA.com, Dunn was selected as the most likely to be Rookie of the Year, and to be the best defensive player and the best playmaker in the rookie class.
If there were high – and, perhaps, unrealistic – expectations for Dunn as a rookie, he certainly failed to meet most of them. Firmly planted behind Ricky Rubio in the Wolves’ point guard pecking order, Dunn’s role was never big enough for him to be in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year award. (Even in a year when the winner will either have played just 31 games, or be some dude named Malcolm Brogdon.) There was endless speculation and rumor-mongering about whether the Wolves would repeal and replace Rubio with Dunn as the starting point guard. Circumstances dictated otherwise. After a strong showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, in which he was fourth in points per game with an average of 24 ppg (!!), Dunn was unable to to produce any consistent offense during the regular season, in which he averaged 3.8 ppg (7.9 points per 36 minutes). Kris was 12th on the team in points per 36, behind the likes of Adreian Payne, Belly, Lance Stephenson, Tyus Jones, and even Jordan Hill (Eds. Note: Small sample size alert.)
Dunn shot 37.7% from the field, and only 28.8% from three-point range. Put simply, he couldn’t score because he couldn’t make jump shots or finish around the hoop. Dunn’s shooting form is bad. Really bad. We’re talking, like, pre-2017 Ricky Rubio-level bad, or at least in the same ballpark as pre-2017 Ricky. Even when the shots go in—like they do in his videos on YouTube—you cringe a little bit when you see the windup and release. It isn’t good.
Can Dunn’s shot improve? It doesn’t seem imminent. It is difficult to fix a broken J, but it has happened before. Jason Kidd is probably the best-known example, but Ricky Rubio’s second-half of last season also seemed like a case in point. It didn’t happen for either overnight, however, and it seems unlikely that it will for Dunn, given that he will need to overhaul the mechanics of his form, which is usually a long process and not an event.
So while we can’t rule out the possibility that Dunn will become a serviceable shooter—which is damn near a prerequisite to be a league-average starting NBA point guard these days—it didn’t happen this season and it probably won’t next season. After watching Dunn all season, it seems like we’re in a “it is what it is” situation with regard to his jump shot.
What Dunn also is is long, athletic, and explosive. Oh, and the dude has wicked handles.
Physically, Dunn has most of the ingredients you want in elite point guard talent. The problem was Dunn’s inability to make efficient use of his god-given talent and the elite ball-handling skills he has worked hard to develop.
In hindsight, the rookies’ expectations of Dunn as the probable RoY, and “best playmaker,” are laughable. He finished 36th among rookies in scoring, 29th in field goal percentage, and 7th in assists (at 2.4 per game). Just among Timberwolves players, Dunn was 12th on the team in plus-minus, behind Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush and ahead of Lance Stephenson, Zach LaVine, and Omri Casspi.
But before the season, our expectations of Dunn might have been optimistic, but they weren’t laughable. (At least it didn’t feel like they were.) And at times this season, despite Dunn’s poor offensive play, he did show signs that he could become an impact player on defense. He has excellent instincts and a strong work ethic on that side of the ball. His defensive rating was about half-a-point better than the Wolves’ team average, but it wasn’t as stellar as his individual ability sometimes appeared to the eye-test. He’s one of the best shot-blocking point guards I’ve seen in a long while. It isn’t uncommon to see Dunn blocking shots like this.
The Elephant in the Room
In any conversation about Kris Dunn’s future, Ricky Rubio is the elephant in the room. Rubio had his best season as an NBA player last season. It remains unclear what Rubio’s future with the Wolves holds—he could remain in Minnesota for the rest of his career, or be traded in short order—but what is clear is that Rubio is currently light years ahead of Dunn in his readiness to be an NBA team’s floor general.
Tom Thibodeau’s bromance with Kris Dunn has been well-documented over the past year. But Dunn never played well enough to dislodge Rubio, and it seemed as if late in the season, Thibodeau finally embraced the notion that Rubio may just be good enough to be his point guard of the future. With Rubio on an affordable contract for two more years, there’s no real rush to move Dunn into the starter’s role.
Rubio’s command of the game, particularly in playmaking situations and as a game-managing point guard, is something Dunn could learn from. If Dunn decides to watch film of a player this offseason, he could do worse than to re-watch Rubio’s 2016-17, particularly over the final third of the season. What he might discover is what it looks like for a point guard who has overcome some of the same weaknesses that currently plague Dunn himself. While I wouldn’t encourage anyone who laces up high-tops to emulate Rubio’s (admittedly improved) shooting form, he could learn much about pace, timing, creativity, and leadership.