Which version of Kris Dunn will we see next season?
“Otto, Zach, Lauri all being here and being aggressive, I had to try to figure what works for me and the team. It's been tough, but at the same time it's going to help me in the long run.” - Dunn
It seemed like it was a long time, a pair of concussions, a sprained knee and a sore back ago, two teams, three coaches, a demotion and a swag ago. But before all that, when Kris Dunn walked into an NBA game for the first time, albeit summer time, the former Providence U. guard was the talk of the NBA.
The gangly 6-4 guard, the fifth pick in the 2016 NBA draft, was leaving observers breathless and opponents seeking ankle specialists and places to hide. In one famous crossover that lives on YouTube, Dunn sent JaKarr Sampson staggering across the court like a barroom drunk after one move. Dunn made jumpers, about 54 percent worth, drove and dunked the ball with ferocity, dominated the best young players in the game with his strength, length and toughness. He was being called the next D-Wade. It looked like the Timberwolves - even with Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown around and young veterans like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris - had made the steal of the draft before Dunn sustained concussion symptoms in his second July game after averaging 24 points and making all-tournament despite just the two appearances.
Where have you gone Kris Dunn? Bulls nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
"Every season has been a different coach, different system, freak injures. Not excuses, but you lose that rhythm once you try to come back in and try to get everything back to where it was... But you have to keep fighting. The thing with this league is you can't be too down on yourself. Keep working hard and good things will happen." - Dunn
"The biggest thing when it comes to my game is having that confidence and swag," Dunn said in an interview last week as the Bulls season concluded. "That Summer League I was coming out of college. The Summer League team allowed me to play my game and play how I normally play. But then my first year I'm coming off the bench. That never happened to me before in my career. I didn't have a set role on the team. Then the trade and the second year under Fred (Hoiberg) I had to fight for my starters' position with the dislocated finger (injury). That took some games.
"So this year," Dunn pointed out, "was my first being a (starting) point guard. So still getting adjusted going against some high level competition. I found my groove and started getting my swag and confidence. And then injuries and a coaching change occurred and trying to get my rhythm back and Otto (Porter), Zach (LaVine), Lauri (Markkanen) all being here and being aggressive, I had to try to figure what works for me and the team. It's been tough, but at the same time it's going to help me in the long run.
"Every season," noted Dunn, "has been a different coach, different system, freak injures. Not excuses, but you lose that rhythm once you try to come back in and try to get everything back to where it was when you were playing before you got injured. So it was tough. But you have to keep fighting. The thing with this league is you can't be too down on yourself. Keep working hard and good things will happen. It can only get better from here."
The Bulls can only hope.
One of the big question marks for the Bulls in the offseason is whether to look for another point guard or whether Dunn, still just 25 coming off two injury-marred seasons, is ready to break through and assume the position.
"People will always have their opinions and they have their right to have their opinions," said Dunn about critics. "I can't say what people should say about me; it's on me to change their opinions. Keep working hard, being who I am, try to find that confidence and swag. I feel this is only my second year being a point guard and I can only get better. Next year I'm going to learn even more, be even more aggressive.
"We've got the talent. It's about having the chemistry, playing together, being in sync at both sides of the floor and bringing it each game. All the injuries, we couldn't find our rhythm. We all individually had our moments. But as a team, it hit us hard." - Dunn
"I think this season has helped me figure out who I am as a player in this league," said Dunn. "To be aggressive. When I'm aggressive I feel I am at my best and this season allowed me to understand that. I sacrificed for the team and I wasn't always looking like the player that I normally am."
If Dunn is the player who burst into the NBA Summer League in 2016, the Bulls point guard questions are resolved.
But who knows.
After averaging 13.4 points in 2017-18 and assuming a role as a finisher under Hoiberg in a 10-2 stretch, Dunn fell to averaging 11.3 points per game in 2018-19. Dunn had 26 points and 13 assists in a victory in Washington March 20. He then hurt his back the next game and sat out the final eight games of the season, playing in just 46 games. His three-point shooting ticked up a bit to 35 percent, but his free throw attempts fell to fewer than two per game as new coach Jim Boylen played him more off the ball.
And now with a lottery draft pick upcoming, free agency and potential trades, no one is quite sure about the roster makeup. Dunn has one season left on his contract, and then he'll become a restricted free agent if the Bulls extend a qualifying offer. Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson has generally talked about LaVine, Markkanen, Porter and Wendell Carter Jr. as core players. But he insisted the team has not given up on Dunn. Dunn believes he can make it so he's a major part of that group, which would go a long way toward enhancing the Bulls prospects.
"I learned winning is hard in the NBA," Dunn said about the two difficult seasons with the Bulls. "You can have all the talent. As you know, we have a lot of talented guys on the team. But in order to win you have to be bought in, you have to play the right way, you have to all be in sync on the offensive and defensive end. Defense wins championships. I agree with that. It's something I can do. You see the good teams in this league play defense. We have to make that our mark."
The Bulls have vacillated between philosophies with the rebuilding and the change in coaching. Fred Hoiberg skewed toward offense. Boylen moved toward defense when he took over and then a more open game. It will be on Boylen with a full training camp ahead to establish that direction. And if it's defensive-oriented in the tradition of successful Bulls teams of the past, Dunn could prove an important player.
"Earlier this season I was being aggressive and it kind of deferred away from Lauri a little bit," Dunn explained. "So the next stretch, I kind of sacrificed my role to see how it went. You could say it was for the better. You could say it was for the worse. I really don't know the answer to that. Since I was yay high, I always had that ball in my hands. If I knew we were going to do multi ballhandlers, I would've prepped for it over the summer. But going into the summer, my job was to create for others.
"We've got the talent. It's about having the chemistry, playing together, being in sync at both sides of the floor and bringing it each game," said Dunn. "All the injuries, we couldn't find our rhythm. We all individually had our moments. But as a team, it hit us hard. A little bit of everything this year, injuries, trades, coaching change, system changing, weren't healthy from the start. In the sense of the core, we all didn't have a chance to really play all together. When we did, there was no rhythm to it, no flow.
"I definitely want to keep improving my three-ball," Dunn said. "That's definitely going to open a lot for my game and I'm starting to see the league the way it's crucial on that. I feel I improved on it this year and I think I can keep improving my mechanics, keep my turnovers down, keep watching a lot of film and keep pushing on the things I do well in the league, the mid range, getting to my spots, floaters and start working on getting more foul calls and being aggressive. I am really excited because now I feel I have a foundation I am working on. I feel I'm going to get a whole lot better."
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