SANTA MONICA, California — There aren’t many point guards that can fill up a stat sheet the way that Providence point guard Kris Dunn can.
Look at these numbers that he posted during the 2014-15 season: 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 boards, 2.7 steals. A fantasy basketball player’s dream.
Throw in the fact that Dunn is a strong, athletic, 6-foot-3 point guard with long arms and a great feel for operating in ball-screen actions and it’s no wonder that his decision to turn down a shot at being a lottery pick for his junior season was considered the most surprising choice of any prospect this spring.
There were really two reasons that impacted Dunn’s decision to return to school, he told NBCSports.com during a conversation at the Nike Academy last month. The biggest was that he wanted to get his degree. Education was something that was hammered home by Dunn’s father and stepmother back in New London, Connecticut, and as corny or cliche as it sounds, being able to call himself a college graduate matters to him. Dunn is a junior eligibility-wise, but this will be his fourth season in college; he was granted a medical redshirt after shoulder surgery limited him to four games in 2013-14.
The other reason that Dunn decided to come back to school is that he not only wants to be on an NBA roster when he arrives in the league, he wants to be an impact player, an important piece wherever he ends up, not just a prospect that begins his career as nothing more than a name on a roster leading cheers from the end of the bench.
“Right now, I may be an NBA talent, as you say, and for myself I can see that. But for me, I want to be ready when I come in,” Dunn said.
And for Dunn to be “ready” when he does get to the next level, there are two glaring holes in his game that he needs to fix: he needs to become a more consistent jump-shooter, particularly from three-point range, and he needs to do something about all those turnovers.
Dunn was an NBCSports.com second-team All-American a season ago, but despite the voluminous raw numbers that he was able to produce for a top 25 team that reached the NCAA tournament, that was not a consensus opinion. You see, the way that Ed Cooley’s offense operates, whoever is running the point is going to produce. They’re going to be put in ball-screen after ball-screen. They’re going to be asked to make decisions and to make plays. They’re going to have the ball in their hands the majority of the time. And if they’re any good — like Dunn is, like Bryce Cotton was before him, like Vincent Council was before that — their numbers will be impressive.
Dunn’s usage rate last season — a number that determines how often that player ends a possession, either through a made shot, a missed shot that isn’t rebounded by the offense or through a turnover — was 30.2, the sixth-highest rate for any high-major player in the country. That number doesn’t factor in his assists, either, as Dunn led the nation in assist rate, per KenPom.com. In other words, there may not be a player in the country that played a bigger role for his team offensively than Dunn did last season.
The issue for voters was Dunn’s efficiency. Or, frankly, lack thereof. He averaged 4.2 turnovers per game, finishing the year with an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.85-to-1 despite finishing second in the nation in assists. His offensive rating, per KenPom, was 103.0, a number that fell to 96.5 against top 50 competition. By comparison, 2015 NBCSports.com Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky’s offensive rating was 126.2 while D’Angelo Russell’s was 113.6. According to Synergy, Dunn averaged 0.820 points-per-possession — good for the 42nd percentile — overall and just 0.759 PPP in a half court setting — the 34th percentile.
To put it simply, Dunn did not always make the most of his opportunities when he had the ball in his hands.
And it makes Dunn one of the most intriguing prospects in college basketball in 2015-16. He’s got the physical tools and skill-set to be a terrific point guard in the NBA for years, yet the flaws in his game are as obvious as the sky is blue.
Shooting is the easiest facet of a basketball player’s game to develop.
Repetition. Muscle memory. Confidence. If a player truly wants to become a better shooter, all it really takes is the time and the effort to perfect his form. Once that happens, once that player has reached a point where every shot that he takes comes off of his hands the same way, he can work on situational shooting; things like squaring his shoulders to the rim regardless of which direction he comes off of a pindown or maintaining his balance with his lower body while increasing how much space he can create using a step-back.
This is what Dunn’s summer has consisted of.
“I have to learn to play within the system and take the shots the defense is giving me,” Dunn said. “I have to learn how to do that. It’s what I’ve been focusing on all offseason.”
Here’s an example: One of the situational shots that Dunn has been working on is taking an open three when his defender goes under a ball-screen. To work on this, Cooley runs Dunn through something he calls the “Cone Drill”. Dunn, with the ball, comes off a ball-screen and has to react to a call the coaching staff makes. If they say over, Dunn has to attack off the screen, pulling up in the mid-range or making a move as he practices snaking his way to the rim. But if they call under, Dunn has to pull his dribble back and shoot that three.
When everything goes well, this is what it’s supposed to look like:
The problem is that, for Dunn, everything didn’t go that well that often. According to Synergy, Dunn was involved in 461 ball-screens in 2014-15, and only seven times did he bury a three after a defender went under the screen. Part of this is procedural; it’s fairly rare for defenses to go under ball-screens these days. But the other issue is that Dunn didn’t always look to take that shot when defenses gave him that opportunity. Just 17 times in the 33 games he played did Dunn shoot a three after a defender went under the screen.
When things went wrong, those ball-screen actions didn’t look quite as pretty:
That’s where confidence comes into play. Instead of forcing a drive into traffic or trying to thread the needle on a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to a big man with so-so hands and a defender to beat, take that top-of-the-key three. Have the belief in himself that he’s able to make that shot. Throughout his entire career, Dunn has been bigger, quicker and stronger than anyone he’s played against. He never developed his jumpshot in high school because he never needed to; Connecticut high school basketball isn’t as bad as some might make it out to be, but let’s just say Dunn wasn’t playing against Division I prospects on a nightly basis.
“In high school, I probably shot like one jump shot a game,” Dunn explained. “I could get to the basket anytime I wanted and my dad always told me if you can get a bucket without shooting [a jumper] get to the bucket.”
“In college, you can’t get to the rim all the time. Coaches do a terrific job of scouting, so they know that I like to get to the basket.”
The core of the issue was Dunn’s decision-making, not just being able to read his teammates and what the defense is doing, but reacting to it properly. That was a common theme with Dunn last season, according to Cooley, and a major reason that he finished the year with 138 turnovers in those 33 games. I charted every one of those 138 turnovers, and after subtracting seven that weren’t Dunn’s fault (i.e. a pass goes through a teammate’s hands), what I found was that 38 of those turnovers — or 29.0 percent — were a direct result of Dunn making a poor decision, whether that be firing a bounce-pass at a seven-footer’s knees (the first of six clips in the video below), throwing no-look passes to big men in transition, over-dribbling into traffic or simply not recognizing who he is passing to; finding an open teammate is important, but the best point guards get the ball to their teammates in a position where they can be effective:
“A third of his turnovers came with him him giving the ball up too early to non-ball handlers but good finishers,” Cooley said. “Give those guys the ball where he can finish, not give them a decision to make a play or make a shot.”
“I was being too aggressive, always trying to make the home-run play,” Dunn added. “What we’ve been working on is situations where basically I can make a hockey assist, making the pass that leads to the assist.”
Another 24 of those turnovers were the direct result of Dunn simply being careless with the ball. Seriously. There were 24 of these:
Do the math, and 47.3 percent of Dunn’s turnovers from last season were avoidable.
This is where film study comes into play for Cooley, because getting Dunn to better take care of the ball isn’t as easy as getting him to make 500 jumpers a day. Recognizing defenses takes more than just muscle memory.
“You really get those kids to watch film and see the game, to know what we’re doing offensively,” Cooley said. “You can show him [those turnovers] and say, ‘this is your turnover, tell me what you should do differently.'”
“We want to be three or less turnovers per game. We’re going to play at a frenetic pace this year. He had 138 turnovers, and we’ve gotta try to cut those, I’m not going to say half, but if we can get it down to 60 percent, now those are times where we get the ball and at least we’re getting shots.”
“I see John Wall, but a B-plus athlete instead of an A-plus athlete.”
That’s how one NBA scout described Dunn’s game to NBCSports.com, and it’s a more-than-fair comparison when you really look at it. Their physical profiles are strikingly similar: Big point guards, long arms, proven ability in ball-screen actions. Wall, as the scout mentioned, is one of the best athletes at the point guard position in the NBA, with the kind of explosiveness that deservedly puts him in the same league as the likes of Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose circa the MVP years. Dunn is a better defender than Wall, but he’s not the same level of athlete.
The similarities go deeper than that.
In Wall’s one season at Kentucky, he averaged 16.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds. He also shot 32.5 percent from three while turning the ball over 4.0 times per game. Those numbers may as well be a carbon-copy of what Dunn produced in 2014-15.
The key question is going to be what those numbers look like this season. Will Dunn be a better shooter? Will he get his turnover problems under control? Last year was Dunn’s first full season as the college level, the first time in two years that he was healthy after undergoing a pair of surgeries on his right shoulder in the span of 18 months. He missed the first nine games of his freshman year and all but four games of the 2013-14 season, when he received the medical redshirt.
Throw in the fact that this was the first time that Dunn was asked to play the point full-time at a level higher than a Connecticut high school league, and there’s some wiggle room here. Maybe he was rusty. Maybe he was adjusting to the level of competition. Maybe it was just a hurdle on the track of his development.
That’s what the scouts are going to be looking for in 2015-16. When a player returns to school a year longer than expected, the conversation always changes. It’s inevitable. Instead of focusing on what the player is capable of doing on a basketball court, the discussion is led by weaknesses. What can’t he do, and why?
And therein lies the challenge for Dunn.
With a roster that loses LaDontae Henton, Paschal Chukwu, Tyler Harris and Carson Desrosiers, the Friars are going to look for Dunn to handle even more of the responsibility offensively this season.
“Kris, especially with the new rule — no five-second, close to the ball count — is going to dominate the ball,” Cooley said.
He’s going to put up gaudy numbers once again.
But his future and his draft stock will depend on just how many of his mistakes he can eliminate.