Kris Dunn continues to grind and prosper

After an up and down start to his career, Dunn is making his case as one of the league's premier defenders
Kris Dunn
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

Kris Dunn opens up about how his journey throughout life and the NBA has shaped his mentality and play style.

Kris Dunn always has been playing defense, though not necessarily in the traditional sense. Dunn's story is the TV movie that has yet to be made, a circuitous journey of turnovers and turnabouts in trying to steal a life from the world's common orthodoxies. That Kris Dunn has enjoyed one of the more remarkable turnarounds, both in his life and this season with the Bulls, suggests better things to come once again.

Kris Dunn knows intimately about being lost and forgotten and battling back to respectability and success. That he's doing so this season with the Bulls, the NBA leader in most steals, is one of the best feel-good stories in the NBA this season. That so many don't notice has been both Dunn's narrative and motivation.

"The previous years I thought I played solid. I felt injuries got in the way of things; other things outside of that. The main thing is staying healthy. I feel I've always been a good defender, but I feel it's being showcased more this year. I just try to do what I do."

Kris Dunn defense

"My journey has been up and down since I've been in the NBA," said the fourth-year guard. "Most people, when you are a top-five draft pick they come in and they usually get the keys. I had to sit back and wait my turn and then with the Bulls I kind of showcased a little of what I could do, but then things changed. But I stayed with it and I stayed true to myself."

"I kept working, kept grinding and didn't let anyone paint a narrative for me."

Kris Dunn

"I didn't listen to the outside noise and it was there. That says a lot about me. It's going to teach me even when I'm older and I can teach that to my son and carry that with me. What I can do is be positive, keep working hard, keep my head down. I feel like I did the right thing and I think you guys now are seeing a little of who I am and what I am going to become."

No one, honestly, saw this coming, Dunn reclaiming his starting job and not so coincidently, the Bulls in their best stretch of the season since then, 6-6 in December. And with finally an identity of an aggressive, defensive, ball-hawking team led in scoring by Zach LaVine, but in pressures by Kris Dunn.

He's a mentally tough dude. He's gone through so much in his life. If you media guys know his life, there's not going to be a lot to bring him down. People's criticism isn't going to mess with him. He's been through bigger stuff in his life and had to deal with it and came through it all. He's strong-minded.

Zach LaVine

Dunn's story has been told before, if not as it likely will be someday in film or on stage. There are so many remarkable rags-to-riches sports stories, though few like Dunn's. Here was an infant, taken with his brother from his home by his mother, who would fall into criminal mischief to keep the family going. When she was jailed for an extended stay, Kris and his older brother, John, nine and 13 at the time and living secretly in Virginia, literally lived on their own for fear child services would find and separate them. John played craps with loaded dice for food money. Nine-year-old sports prodigy Kris with a football player's mentality, hustled one-on-one basketball games. Maybe some fists at times for the extras. You know, just stealing a living.

Eventually, their father, John Seldon, found them to bring them back home to Connecticut. There's a story of Seldon and a friend coming to the door that night and Kris ordering them to get away; yes, always playing defense.

It's also a Bulls tradition from Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier terrifying the stars of the game in the early 1970s to Jordan, Pippen and Grant, the Dobermans of 90s defense that dominated the NBA.

The 6-4 Dunn brings a similar ferocity to the game, his play especially since he returned to start dominating some of the league's top scorers like Trae Young, who is averaging 29 points and shooting 37 percent on threes. Against the Bulls and Dunn, he is averaging 12 points and is one of 14 on threes.

"I think they appreciate what I've been doing this year for the team; that's my narrative. I'm not going to let anyone paint a narrative for me. Down the line there are going to be many more opportunities and it's for me to take advantage of them."

Kris Dunn going in after a loose ball

"I think I can be even better because, overall, I think I do a little bit more defensively (than others)," Dunn said. "I'm capable of walling people up one through four. I'm capable of recovering, capable of stealing the ball, (playing the) passing lanes, open court, taking the ball from people. I feel like I can be a really good defensive player and this year I'm striving to be first team. I think there's nothing wrong with saying that. That's one of my goals. Is it selfish? But that's going to allow our team defense to be even better."

There's some irony in that Dunn is following a somewhat similar path as former Bull Jimmy Butler. Though Dunn was the lottery pick and Butler last in the first round. Butler was a defense-only big wing player when he came to the Bulls as a 22-year-old rookie. It wasn't until Butler's third season as a 25-year-old, the same age as Dunn is now—that Butler first averaged in double figures.

Like Butler, Dunn was a football player first who didn't much follow basketball.

"I was more Sean Taylor, John Lynch, Brian Dawkins, those types of guys," says Dunn. "I like to fly around. So I think that's what you're getting, a little bit of that football nature in me. I like to fly around to be physical; that's why I have so many fouls."

Dunn's father, a collegiate linebacker, during Kris' games, would extend and wave his arms like wings as a reminder. Kris would peer up into the stands in appreciation and understanding. It's likely why Dunn still talks about flying around the court.

Butler did so as well and he made himself a competent shooter. Though Jimmy became more of a scorer because of his physical play and demanding attitude and now is among the league's top two-way players.

Perhaps that's not the destiny for Kris Dunn, but averaging 8.5 points this month with more than two steals per game and defending the opponent's best scorer, there's a place for Kris Dunn's audacity. Similar players like Bruce Bowen, Patrick Beverley, Michael Cooper, and Tony Allen have been integral parts of winning teams.

Dunn's shooting hasn't improved much, though opposing scouts often are puzzled because they say his form is good. Perhaps confidence comes one side at a time. Though Dunn doesn't get the benefit of post-up play because of the way the Bulls offense operates.

"I'm still working on my three-point shot," says Dunn, shooting just 23 percent from the arc this season. "At the same time being who I am. That's getting downhill, getting to the basket, being aggressive and making plays for others."

"This year is showcasing a little bit of what I have learned and how I've stayed positive and kept working hard, kept grinding," Dunn says. "I tell people all the time I feel I'm like a Swiss Army knife, that I can do a little bit of everything. It's based off the opportunity. With Fred (Hoiberg), he allowed me to be more free. With Jim (Boylen), I understand we have a lot of talented (offensive) players, and that's not my role. I'm OK with that. But even just my second year with the Bulls at one point in time you were all calling me the closer."

Kris Dunn dribbling

Ah, the good ‘ol days.

It feels like so long ago. But it was just two years ago in December when Dunn not only was the Bulls' closer but the closer who was making the winning plays.

Hoiberg endured several years of player injuries in the team's rebuilding period, and Dunn often was among them. But there was a brief alchemy when potential and talent mixed for 10 wins in 12 games, Kris Dunn in the middle to save many.

There were a few blowout wins, but there was Dunn with two closing free throws to beat the Knicks, a late jumper to beat the Jazz, a jumper and then assist on a Nikola Mirotic three in the last minute to beat the 76ers. Dunn had 22 and six in that game, 17 and nine against the Knicks, 13 and eight against the Jazz. He had 20 and 12 when the run started in Mirotic's return from his fight with Bobby Portis and then 20 and 12 in a win against the Bucks in the run, 17 and five in the back to back win over the Knicks. The Bulls were rolling and Dunn had 32 in Dallas in a win and 16 against the dominant Warriors Jan. 17, making a steal and going all the way with about three minutes left to dunk and get the Bulls within five and..basically end his season.

Dunn fell and sustained a concussion. He missed 11 games, wasn't quite the same when he returned and then missed the last 14 games. He'd had that difficult rookie season with renowned rookie averse Tom Thibodeau before the Butler trade to the Bulls with LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. That was Dunn's second season, and he appeared to be making that executed jump.

Then he suffered a knee injury and missed 26 of the first 27 games last season. By the time he returned, there'd been a coaching change and, let's say, not a very smooth transition. Dunn missed the last eight games of 2018-19 and the last place it looked like he would be was with the Bulls. Forget starting. The Bulls used their No. 1 draft pick for a point guard, Coby White. One of their two major personnel moves was to sign point guard Washington Tomas Satoransky. They resigned utility point guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaquille Harrison. It seemed like there was a "Help Wanted Point Guard" sign at the United Center.

Dunn's tenure with the Bulls seemed over. His game also didn't seem to fit with the league's current perimeter shooting trend.

But to paraphrase Bluto from the Animal House movie, nobody says it's over until Kris Dunn says it's over. It wasn't over when he was taken from his home and it wasn't over when his mom went to jail and it wasn't over when he was stapled to the bench in Minnesota and it wasn't over when he seemingly was left behind with the Bulls.

"My journey has been a roller coaster ride," Dunn acknowledges. "It's only been four years, but I've seen a lot and learned a lot and for me at the end of the day, it's just to be who I am. Just keep learning the game, learning about myself on and off the court. I feel like I can hang my hat on defense; that is always going to be me. But I can score the ball, I can get guys involved, I can rebound."

"It's only been four years, but I've seen a lot and learned a lot and for me at the end of the day, it's just to be who I am. Just keep learning the game, learning about myself on and off the court. I feel like I can hang my hat on defense; that is always going to be me."

Kris Dunn

"Kobe Bryant, I liked his mentality; Jordan, his mentality. You have to be physical with these guys. I know the league is trying to let guys score more points easier, not allowing guys to be as physical. But you have to be physical with guys these days because they are so talented."

Kris Dunn yelling

Asked about enduring the slights, the injuries, the setbacks, the criticism, and seeming dismissal, Dunn smiles. He's not so enigmatic this season, more candid than he's been since coming to the Bulls, more talkative on and off the court. Though trust would understandably be difficult and come slowly, after all, he has endured.

"I think it says a lot about my character, about who I am," says Dunn. "My childhood definitely is a replica of it. I've been through a lot and was able to fight through it and get to the NBA. I'm still here."

Which also is the message Dunn delivers on every possession. He's coming. Be ready.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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