Fixing his flaws: How Kris Dunn has attacked the two weaknesses in his game

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

No. 1 South Carolina tops fifth-ranked UConn 81-77

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HARTFORD, Conn. – In a rematch of last season’s national championship game, South Carolina came out on top again over UConn thanks to a strong fourth quarter by Aliyah Boston.

Geno Auriemma stepping onto the court to spike a water botte, that helped them, too.

Boston scored 23 of her 26 points in the second half, including 14 in the final period, to help the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the fifth-ranked Huskies 81-77 on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd.

“Aliyah is just relentless, she plays relentlessly although she had a subpar (first half) as far as statistics, she impacted the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered. she knew she didn’t play up to her standards. What does she do? Raise her standard. Bad first half or not she’s going to continue to play.”

While there wasn’t as much on the line as the title game last April, there was a high intensity to it, including Auriemma getting the technical late in the fourth quarter after getting frustrated by the officiating enough to throw the bottle.

“I thought there were a lot of things being overlooked. It was difficult for some of our guys to move out on the floor,” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach. “I didn’t think it was one key play, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It was bad. … Dumb mistake by me. Bad decision.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) have won 29 consecutive games since losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game last year. They’ve won four of the past five meetings with the Huskies, including a victory in the NCAA championship game last season. That ended UConn’s perfect 11-0 record in title games.

“This was a national championship-like game. I wanted us to feel what it takes to do this,” Staley said.

Now South Carolina finally has a win in Connecticut after winning there before.

South Carolina used its size again to top the Huskies. The 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year helped the Gamecocks have a 42-30 advantage on the boards, including grabbing 25 offensive rebounds.

Boston finished with 11 rebounds for the 76th double-double of her career. Cardoso added 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

With her team leading by four in the fourth quarter, Boston took over. She scored the next 12 points for South Carolina, two of those came when Auriemma tossed the water onto the court and was charged with the technical foul.

Boston hit the two free throws. She then hit a jumper, a 3-pointer and another basket to give the Gamecocks a double-digit advantage.

“I’m kind of in attack mode. In the second half I made more shots then I did in the first half,” Boston said.

Despite seeing their starting backcourt foul out, the short-handed Huskies (21-3) wouldn’t go away. They whittled the lead down to 80-77 with 10.8 seconds left on Aubrey Griffin’s three-point play.

Raven Johnson hit the first of two free throws a second later and UConn couldn’t convert to close out the game

“They have a lot to feel good about once they get past what it feels like to lose,” Auriemma said. “I feel better at 3 o’clock today then I did at 12 o’clock. I didn’t know how we’d respond. I knew we’d play hard and compete like hell. I didn’t know who was going to make a big play, who was going to get a big rebound, make a big shot. I know now more than I did at noon and I feel better about my team.”

Aaliyah Edwards led UConn with 25 points.

UConn got off to a solid start, outscoring South Carolina 25-14 in the opening period. Lou Lopez Senechal capped the strong start, hitting a running 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

South Carolina asserted its size in the second quarter with Cardoso scoring 11 points in the period. Her putback with just under 10 seconds left tied the game at 34 heading into the half.

TIP-INS:

UConn is 8-10 against No. 1 teams all time. … The Huskies are still missing guards Azzi Fudd (knee), Caroline Ducharme (concussion) as well as Paige Bueckers (knee) and Ice Brady (knee), who are both out for the season. … Many former UConn players were in the crowd including Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, and Napheesa Collier sitting a few rows behind the Huskies bench. … South Carolina has gone 41-6 against ranked teams since the start of the 2019-20 season.

DEPTH:

The Gamecocks reserves outscored UConn’s 37-0. The Huskies only had eight healthy players.

UP NEXT:

South Carolina: visits Auburn on Thursday before a showdown with No. 3 LSU on Feb. 12

UConn: visits Marquette on Wednesday.

No. 16 Duke tops No. 9 Notre Dame 57-52 for 1st place in ACC

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Celeste Taylor scored 14 points and No. 16 Duke came from behind for a 57-52 victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday to move into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Trailing for most of the game’s first 28 minutes, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) took the lead for good in the final minutes of the third quarter to knock off the Fighting Irish (18-4, 9-3) before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion.

A jumper by Jordyn Oliver put Duke ahead 45-44 with 1:20 left in the third quarter and the visitors never trailed after that.

“I’m proud of my players for finishing the game,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Duke led 48-46 going into the fourth quarter after trailing Notre Dame by as many as five points in the third quarter. A steal by Elizabeth Balogun in the final 15 seconds helped seal the win.

A 13-4 run helped Notre Dame take its biggest lead of the first half for either team at 31-23. The Irish led 31-25 at halftime.

“We fell short, but you know it’s a part of our growth,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “It’s part of our journey.”

Taylor scored 10 points for Duke in the second half. Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson finished with 9 points apiece and Taya Corosdale and Oliver had 8 each.

Maddy Westbeld, playing all 40 minutes, led Notre Dame with 15 points, Sonia Citron scored 14 and Olivia Miles added 11.

“She’s one of the best players in the country,” Lawson said of Miles, who logged just over 31 minutes. “We didn’t have to go against her for a quarter of the game.”

COLD SHOOTING

Neither team shot well in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame made just 2 of 13 shots from the floor and Duke was 3 of 13.

“We just talked about staying disciplined defensively and making it hard,” Lawson said. “I though we challenged shots.”

Ivey also addressed that stretch of the game.

“Some of those opportunities were in transition and we didn’t get a chance to capitalize,” she said. “We did a good job of finding the open person, we just didn’t nail the shots.”

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Led by Corosdale and Oliver, Duke enjoyed a 21-4 edge in reserve scoring.

“I’m really proud of my players off the bench,” Lawson said. “Jordyn Oliver was really good.

“We needed to have that depth in scoring. Not only did they score but they were efficient from the field.”

The Blue Devils’ bench shot 9 of 15.

SHORT-HANDED IRISH

Notre Dame graduate student Dara Mabrey was lost for the season in the Jan. 22 game against Virginia.

Lauren Ebo, a 6-foot-4 graduate student, has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury.

“Ebo does a great job of being a precence on the block with her size and ability to rebound and play post defense,” Ivey said. “She’s been working really hard (at rehabilitation).

“It’s kind of day to day.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish fell out of a first-place tie with Duke in the ACC standings.

Duke: The Blue Devils are now alone atop the conference standings.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Irish meet Pitt in two of the next four contests – on Thursday in South Bend and on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Duke: The only regular-season meeting between the Blue Devils and Boston College is Thursday at Boston.

Colorado State sorry for ‘Russia’ chant at Ukrainian player

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Colorado State has apologized for a group of fans who chanted “Russia” at a player on an opposing team who is from Ukraine during Saturday’s game.

Utah State’s Max Shulga is from Kyiv and was shooting free throws when TV cameras picked up the chant from the student section during the game in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“On behalf of Colorado State, we apologize to the student-athlete and Utah State. This is a violation of our steadfast belief in the Mountain West Sportsmanship Policy and University Principles of Community,” Colorado State said in a statement.

“Every participant, student, and fan should feel welcomed in our venues, and for something like this to have occurred is unacceptable at Colorado State.”

Utah State beat CSU 88-79.

Duke edges North Carolina 63-57 behind Roach, Lively

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DURHAM, N.C. — Jeremy Roach scored 20 points, Dereck Lively II had career highs of eight blocks and 14 rebounds and Duke defeated North Carolina 63-57.

Kyle Filipowski added 14 points and Tyrese Proctor 11 for the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 ACC), who won their third straight and beat the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-5) for the first time in three meetings, including in last year’s Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 63rd career double-double, extending his own program record, Leaky Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Love added 12 points and RJ Davis 11.

Roach scored eight of Duke’s final 10 points, including the last four after Lively’s tiebreaking dunk with 1:35 to go. North Carolina missed its last five shots, including a trio of 3-point tries in the final minute.

The Blue Devils’ six-point winning margin matched their largest lead.

Neither team reached 40% shooting but Duke outscored North Carolina 20-2 off fast breaks and was 11 of 15 at the free-throw line to only 2 of 3 for the Tar Heels.

The stat sheet was fairly even at halftime when Duke led 33-32 except for one telling stat, a 16-0 advantage for the Blue Devils on fast-break points as they scored repeatedly off transition.

A 14-5 run erased a seven-point North Carolina lead — the Tar Heels’ largest — and put Duke in front 26-24 with just under four minutes left in the half. A Proctor 3-pointer broke the fourth tie before Bacot cut it to the one-point margin at the break. Bacot had 12 points in the first half. Roach had 10.

The game matched two men who played in this rivalry and are now leading the programs they played for: first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, in his second year for North Carolina.

The teams will meet again in their regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on March 4. Duke plays at No. 23 Miami on Monday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

No. 13 Iowa State rolls past eighth-ranked Kansas 68-53

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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes scored all 15 of his points in the second half as No. 13 Iowa State rolled past No. 8 Kansas 68-53 on Saturday.

Osun Osunniyi added 13 for the Cyclones (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), who stayed within at least a game of front-running Texas in the conference standings. Tamin Lipsey added eight rebounds and 10 assists.

“Today, we came out and played desperate,” Holmes said.

Jalen Wilson led the Jayhawks (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points for his sixth straight game with at least 20. No other Kansas player had more than 8 points.

“It’s not a formula for success for us,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We need balance from our starting five. If one guy feels like he’s got to go do it all on his own, it crashes the offense.”

The Cyclones led for all but 1:14 of the game, building a 34-16 scoring edge in the paint. Kansas struggled early, making just two of their first 10 shots and committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Iowa State shot 46% for the game.

“From the beginning, we gave them some easy buckets,” Wilson said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with (defensively) … the easiest way to get comfortable is easy buckets, layups, stuff like that.”

Iowa State was up 33-21 at the break.

Holmes missed all four shots in the first half, but after getting sick at halftime, he helped the Cyclones stretched the lead to 42-31 early in the second half with a 3-pointer and layup.

“I felt a little nauseous the whole day,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some sickness over the past week and a half.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks dropped to 3-4 during a stretch in which six of its seven opponents were ranked. The lone unranked foe was Kentucky. … Kansas committed a season-high 20 turnovers Saturday. … The loss to Iowa State was Self’s first in five meetings with second-year Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Iowa State: Improved to 12-0 at home this season and 5-0 in the Big 12. It was also the Cyclones’ fifth win over a top-10 opponent in the past two seasons.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts No. 10 Texas on Monday.

Iowa State: Travels to West Virginia on Wednesday.