Kris Dunn continues to mature and improve
Dunn is averaging 12.8 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds this season
Sure, it's going to be an open competition, we were all shaking our heads and rolling our eyes. No, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg insisted way back in September, that the point guard prize of the trade for Jimmy Butler was going to have to earn his starting spot like everyone else but Robin Lopez. Nothing was being given to anybody. No role by reputation; if you are better, you play until the other guy is better. Competition will be the arbiter.
And then when the preseason began, Jerian Grant, indeed, was the Bulls' starting point guard. And then even when Kris Dunn was ready to return from his dislocated finger in training camp, he wasn't playing like the best point guard on the roster. So he didn't start.
Which is a big reason Dunn has been the best point guard on the roster lately, developing into a signifiant NBA starter, the pre-Christmas loss to Boston notwithstanding. And another reason why this Bulls team, if not the most talented, continues with Tuesday's game in Milwaukee to improve with its competitive nature and resilient play.
"That helped me for sure," said Dunn, "that I had to earn everything. I'm very appreciative of the coaching staff and the higher ups. They weren't going to give me anything. They made me work for my job. It only made me go harder in practice, work harder in the game to be more locked in and more focused, trying to improve each and every day. I really am very appreciative of them for doing that."
It's a little thing given the enormity of the circumstances for this Bulls season, transitioning to a team devoid of big name stars as it awaits the return of Zach LaVine from knee surgery, probably next month. There's also consideration of a future rotation, who fits in and who doesn't and that so called culture of play. Hoiberg made the first statement about that with his challenges. And even with a 10-22 record, the team has responded well, especially with the seven straight wins before the recent losses in Cleveland and Boston.
Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis both have answered from their preseason altercation by having career years thus far, Hoiberg navigating the potentially delicate predicament deftly. Justin Holiday also is having a career year scoring, doubling his career scoring average. Robin Lopez, likely for the first time in his life including kindergarten and in the back yard, is having a better offensive season than twin brother Brook, averaging more points and rebounds and shooting better.
And then there's Dunn, who was basically labeled a draft bust last season when he averaged 3.8 points and graded out in some of the curious advanced statistics as the worst point guard in the NBA.
Dunn this season is averaging 12.8 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds, becoming the full-time starter only Nov. 21 in Los Angeles. The Bulls are 7-11 since then. Though this effectively is his rookie season given how irregularly Dunn played last season and in a role as just a defensive sub off the bench, Dunn is tied for fifth in the NBA in steals. He's 17th overall in assists and among point guards eighth in rebounds. Plus, he's shooting a competitive 35 percent on threes.
"That was just talk," said Dunn, who heard often the draft selection was a mistake. "People said it to my face, Minnesota, everywhere. But I know my game. Didn't bother me. I've been through worse in life, so it doesn't get to me. I'm a fighter in life; just a little bit of adversity, hitting a bump and I just try to fight through it."
It's something everyone says. But those who had seen the 6-4 spidery athlete out of Providence become a consensus lottery pick and top point guard in the 2016 draft after Ben Simmons agreed they weren't seeing the same player. They saw someone hesitant, uncertain, not as aggressive. It wasn't so much the so called tough love Dunn needed, but a coach who would hold him accountable, who would give him nothing but a chance and a challenge.
Hoiberg did and it's been benefitting the Bulls. In training camp and when the season began, there were questions about whether the Bulls had a point guard for the future. There aren't anymore.
"It truly was an open competition for our guys coming into camp," said Hoiberg. "I thought Jerian earned the spot and it was a simple as that. I thought he was more consistent. His assist-to-turnover ratio was off the charts and it was part of the process to get Kris to go out and play more consistently. As he continued to do that, I think he grew in a big way because he was forced to earn that spot and that position. I've been really proud of Kris the way he handled everything and the way he worked to get better. He's really taken off in the role. He's the guy we get the ball to in the clutch and he's made big play after big play."
Hoiberg has referred to Dunn as the team's "closer," the guy who takes that last shot with the game in the balance. The part was available for auditions this season with Butler and Dwayne Wade gone, Derrick Rose previously. The assumption was it would remain that way until LaVine returned.
But Dunn looked like he had the winner on a drive against the Nuggets at the end of November before a defensive breakdown at the end resulted in a loss. Then when the Bulls won seven straight, Dunn was not only right in the middle of the streak, he was relied upon down the stretch, big free throws against the Knicks, pressure late shots against the Magic and 76ers, running to the need instead of retreating.
"The players see through it if you just give the position or starting spot or minutes." said Hoiberg. "You have to earn it and Kris has. It's (also) very important you have a guy you have confidence in who can make the right play down the stretch. We've trusted him and put the ball in his hands. And there's his willingness to learn in a lot of situations.
"Zach will absolutely give us another option to go to late in games," Hoiberg aded. "He's had some really good moments down the stretch in clutch situations. So it's going to be good to have another guy on the floor that can make a play at the end of games. But right now Kris has been really good in that role."
It's actually a fairly remarkable advance for a player who couldn't even win the starting job in training camp over a deep bench guy from last season who isn't considered a true point guard.
That Dunn could come so far in just a month starting bodes well for his future and gives the Bulls an appealing possibility to consider of a Dunn/LaVine backcourt, two athletic young players both willing to make plays and in the most difficult situations.
Dunn is coming off one of his most difficult and disappointing games this season, shooting one of 12 for two points in his return to his New England home with the most family and friends watching him play this season. Kyrie Irving dominated against him in the Boston win. Dunn had perhaps a half dozen shots fall teasingly off the rim.
Still, Dunn didn't make excuses or shrink from responsibility, even if it was deservingly spread around. He answered media questions patiently for an extended time after the game. Sure, it was just one of 82. But more than that, personal struggle is almost something of a business card for Dunn, who endured even homeless episodes in his youth.
Dunn played competently in his first two starts, 12 points in each with nine of 23 shooting overall. Then he scored in single digits in consecutive games, two of 17 shooting overall. But then after his poorest game with two points and zero for six shooting against Miami, he had 24 points the next game. Dunn had only one other single digit scoring game since then and followed it with 15 points. The seven-game winning streak followed and Dunn averaged 16.6 points and 7.4 assists. Then he posted a season high 14 assists in the loss at Cleveland for his second double/double of the month.
"One thing about me is I come from a resilient family," said Dunn, who talks of his family as his other team. "We are going to fight through any adversity. Adversity hit us last year and we fought our way out of it. We are just going to keep working as a whole, keep improving each and every day and grind it out and that's what I am doing this year.
"The biggest thing with being a point guard is to run the team, who can be a leader, get guys involved and then when you get guys involved don't be tentative," said Dunn. "I have a lot of confidence in myself, and the coaching staff and my teammates believe in me. So that only gave me more confidence. I'm a young guy still trying to mature and improve, so I'm going out there and giving my all, all the time."
That's all the Bulls and Hoiberg have been asking. The response has been encouraging.
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