Kris Dunn - Starting Point Guard, Finishing Point Guard, Or Both?
With 22 Games Remaining, All Eyes Are on Kris Dunn As Arcidiacono Continues to Impress
Before the All-Star break, the Bulls experienced the changing of the forward with Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker traded to the Washington Wizards for Otto Porter Jr.
As the Bulls Monday prepare to play the Milwaukee Bucks, there’s a question of whether it’s becoming a changing of the guard.
If it matters more who finishes than who starts, as players and coaches so often say, then it’s a big deal that Kris Dunn was replaced by Wayne Selden Jr. late in Friday’s win in Orlando and sat out virtually the entire fourth quarter for Ryan Arcidiacono in Saturday’s victory over the Boston Celtics.
Beyond that, the onetime No. 5 overall pick in the NBA draft, currently the second highest drafted player on the Bulls roster after Porter, is going through the poorest stretch of his Bulls career and on a downward spiral since returning from a knee injury in December.
The lanky 6-4 Dunn is averaging a credible 11.4 points and 6.3 assists for the season, the latter which would rank 15th in the NBA if he had played enough games. But Dunn’s production has been in decline, which is a red flag for teams. Players are generally expected to improve throughout the season, especially players returning from injury. Dunn averaged 13.9 points in December, 11.2 in January and now just 8.4 points per game in February, shooting 39 percent and 23 percent on threes. Dunn never has been a good perimeter shooter, but even his aggression seems to have waned. He has attempted four total free throws this month, all in one game despite averaging more than 30 minutes per game.
Coach Jim Boylen has been supportive of Dunn, and said Saturday night after Dunn sat for just the last seconds of the game that, “Kris is all for the team; Kris gets it. Some nights it will be his night.” But it seems apparent that part of the coach’s All-Star break study involved considering Dunn’s play because point guard is perhaps the game’s most important position in this era. Half of the top 10 scorers in the league are their team’s primarily ballhandlers. It’s perhaps also one reason why Boylen in recent weeks has emphasized multiple ball handler play with Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and now Porter bringing the ball into the front court. The results have been impressive offensively. The Bulls are seventh in scoring since the trade, fifth in shooting, eighth in three-point percentage and sixth in overall offensive rating.
In Saturday’s victory, Arcidiacono played the entire fourth quarter and Dunn just 42 seconds. It was another, hustling defensive game for Arcidiacono, who leads the Bulls in charges taken, chairs pulled (the defensive trick to draw a travel in a post mismatch) and is third overall in the NBA in assist to turnover ratio.
“He’s a tough, competitive kid,” Boylen said after the game about closing with Arcidiacono. “He had made shots early in the game. I felt like we were going to have to make a big shot. We were going to have to score more and the way he shot the ball and had control of the game, I thought it was a good sub for us.”
Arcidiacono has been a good sub and one of the true surprises in the NBA in rising from the depths.
He averages just 5.7 points and 3.5 assists, but undrafted out of Villanova he spent two years in the G-league and seemed destined for a career overseas with limited athleticism. But his tenacity and perseverance enabled him to elbow his way onto the Bulls roster in preseason. And with the faster style the Bulls have played the last month, he’s fit well with his determination to push the ball and ability to make three-point shots, two of three Saturday.
“With time playing under coach and getting Otto acclimated with the offense and the way Zach and Lauri are playing, we’re flowing right now,” Arcidiacono said after the Boston win. “We have a good pace to our offense and defensively we have done a good job the last couple of games. I don’t judge my game on making shots. I try to bring energy, I try to bring effort. Like my football roots, I didn’t but my dad played football in college. So anytime I can take a charge, I enjoy it.”
Arcidiacono is one of those so called gym rats. His G-league coach, current Bulls assistant Nate Loenser, said all he could recall Arcidiacono doing was practicing morning and night that year. Arcidiacono said Saturday he practiced that “pulling the chair” maneuver when a small man backs off and the backing in post player stumbles into a travel against the Bulls big men this past summer. Right, who comes in all summer to work on that?
“I don’t worry about the offensive end,” Arcidiacono said. “Make plays on defense and take what the defense gives me and bring energy off the bench. I guess everyone can look at the numbers, but if I am affecting the game and I make shots great. If I’m affecting the game and not making shots but doing the little things to help us win and be a positive influence on our team, that’s how I judge myself. When I make shots it’s gravy.”
But it’s becoming something of a sloppy mess for Boylen, who has to balance the best interests of the team on several levels. There is the daily competition with the Bulls on their best run in more than a year, the confidence of a young player with great aspirations and the needs of an organization trying to maximize its player value.
Dunn was one of the most highly regarded players in the 2016 NBA draft, the same one that skipped Arcidiacono.
Though isn’t the game supposed to be about what you do and not who you are?
The Celtics had the No. 3 draft pick from a trade with Brooklyn. There was sentiment to select Dunn, a star in New England from Connecticut and Providence College in Rhode Island. The Bulls had interest as well. Rumors were they discussed a trade of Jimmy Butler to get the draft pick and select Dunn. Dunn eventually went to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 5 selection as Boston took Jaylen Brown. The Bulls spent one season with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo before trading Butler to Minnesota for Dunn, Markkanen and LaVine.
Take ownership of what we’re doing. We control effort, we control our communication, we control our physicality. He’s one of those guys that does that.
Dunn suffered in Minnesota as a backup under Tom Thibodeau’s boot camp for rookies. Dunn then seemed to blossom with the Bulls last season, making several game winning shots in the Bulls run of 10 wins in 12 games in December and with an improving month-to-month arc until injured against Golden State shortly after leading the Bulls to a win over Dallas with 32 points. Dunn then sat out the last month as the Bulls experimented with lineups.
He suffered a knee injury in preseason. He then had an encouraging return with 24 points in a win in San Antonio in a stretch of averaging about 16 points and seven assists over eight games in December. But it’s been a series of passive performances since, slowing the pace, giving up shots and hesitant to penetrate. In the last four games, Dunn is averaging five points, is zero for six on threes and hasn’t attempted a free throw in 120 minutes on the court.
Boylen has tried to be positive and encouraging.
Boston reporters before Saturday’s game asked Boylen what he liked about Dunn.
“When he does make a mistake he owns it,” Boylen said. “I think that’s important at this level. He doesn’t deflect responsibility or accountability, which is what I think great players do. Also, he’s quick to speak, meaning he’ll make comments like, ‘First five minutes, guys,’ or ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this on this.’ He talks over the film, which I like. It means they’re locked in and so all those moments when you’re engaged and your teammates see that, that it means something to you, are leadership moments. And to be honest we’ve lacked some of that since I’ve been here. Take ownership of what we’re doing. We control effort, we control our communication, we control our physicality. He’s one of those guys that does that.”
Dunn is a serious type who doesn’t say much to reporters. When he does, he talks about being there for teammates. It has to be a difficult time for him, but that was evident in a small way after Saturday’s game. His locker space is next to Arcidiacono’s. Not being much of a scorer and a reserve, Arcidiacono isn’t asked for interviews much. So he dresses quickly and moves on. He has to be thrilled the way he’s made an NBA career everyone doubted.
But Saturday finishing the game, being part of another good effort from the reserves and leading the team in being on the floor, he drew a cluster of media. Dunn had showered, but couldn’t get back to his locker through the minor throng. Players when they are upset or ignored generally push their way through the reporters. But Dunn quietly backed away and stayed out of sight. He clearly didn’t want to spoil the moment for Arcidiacono.
Coaches always say the game tells you what to do and has to be a meritocracy. Yet, Dunn is just 24 and hasn’t played a full, healthy season in the NBA yet, a long limbed 6-4 guard with good size and playing pedigree.
The Bulls have 22 games remaining with a heck of a lot more plot lines than just playing out an injury-scarred season.
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