Kris Dunn's impact limited in rookie season with Minnesota Timberwolves

Guard hasn't developed enough for Minnesota to trade Ricky Rubio

This season’s Rookie of the Year race got blown up, more or less, when the Philadelphia 76ers shut down center Joel Embiid over a nagging knee injury a couple weeks ago.

Now, as the smoke clears and a debate revs up over various other candidates’ worthiness, one constant remains: Kris Dunn still is no factor.

That’s surprising, given what so many expected of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ newcomer prior to the season. From the night he was picked fifth overall last June to the preseason predictions both of his fellow rookies and the league’s general managers, Dunn was being labeled the “steal” of the draft, an instant-impact player by virtue of his four years of NCAA experience at Providence and the guy who would cause/allow Wolves’ coach and basketball boss Tom Thibodeau to trade Ricky Rubio.

Wrong. Wrong. And so far, wrong.

The steal among the Class of 2016 clearly has been Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon, who didn’t come off the board until the night’s 36th selection. Brogdon, through Sunday, ranked first in assists (256) in that group, first in total points (623) and second in minutes (1,625) to the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram (1898). He was shooting 44.6 percent, including 41.7 percent on 3-pointers, while shouldering a bigger load than expected in running the Bucks’ offense through free agent signee Matthew Dellavedova’s underwhelming season.

Instant impact? That’s been a baton passed around without much ownership by the new guys, from Buddy Hield to Jamal Murray to Domantas Sabonis to Jaylen Brown to Marquese Chriss to Ingram to Brogdon to others, and then back around again. Dunn? Not so much.

As for Minnesota’s present and future point-guard pecking order, the trade deadline passed without incident in the Twin Cities. Since then, Rubio has averaged 14.0 points and 10.9 assists while shooting 44 percent (38.9 from the arc) and posting 121/103 ratings.

In Milwaukee Saturday, Rubio scored 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting and had eight assists with one turnover in a loss on the tail end of the Wolves’ Warriors/Bucks back-to-back set. Dunn had four points on 1-of-6 shooting with three assists and two turnovers. With Minnesota facing Washington and All-Star John Wall on Monday night at Target Center (8 p.m. ET, League Pass), Dunn is no closer to starter’s status than he is to a Rookie of the Year grab.

“The expectations were pretty steep,” one Eastern Conference scout said Monday. “My concern at this point is, I don’t know what he is — he was supposed to be a point guard — but I don’t really know.”

Keep in mind that Dunn’s fellow rookies and the GMs didn’t just expect him to join teammates Anthony Wiggins (2015) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2016) as Minnesota’s third consecutive Rookie winner. His peers predicted he would be the best defender among them this season and the best playmaker. The team execs picked him to rank as the 2016 draft’s second-biggest steal behind Delounte Murray, the Spurs’ selection at No. 29 who figured to have institutional history on his side.

Each group guessed that Dunn would rank second in the categories of best career (players) or best-in-five-years (GMs), neither of which can yet be deemed wrong.

The Wolves don’t think they ever will, frankly.

“Good,” was how Thibodeau termed Dunn’s season so far. “Like most rookies, there’s ups and downs. The thing that’s probably stood out more than anything is his defense. I think his offense is starting to come around but his defense is special. For a guy to come into the league and guard multiple positions, the pressure [he applies], he and [fellow guard] Tyus [Jones] play very well together. His pursuit of the ball, his ability to make tough plays, physicality — it adds a lot to your team.”

Thibodeau — who hasn’t just not traded Rubio, he hasn’t traded anyone since taking over in his double role — wasn’t sweating any preseason predictions.

“None of that stuff is important,” he said .”Whether it’s praise or criticism, the only thing that matters is what we think. We know how important he is to our team. Particularly for a team that … we have to grow defensively. Teams that win are consistent with their defense — that’s something we’re striving for.”

There have been highlights. Dunn had eight rebounds and nine assists in a January game against Denver. He scored 15 points back in December against San Antonio. And he scored eight points in less than 15 minutes in last week’s victory over the Clippers.

But there has been no post-All Star bump in his role. He is lugging around a 7.7 player-efficiency rating, per Basketball-Reference.com, and a net rating of minus-19. Also, while his fellow draftees ranked him as the “funniest” guy in their rookie class, Dunn was all business, no nonsense when asked about this season’s challenges.

“I knew there were going be a lot of ups and downs. I just had to go through it,” he said. “Trying to learn my role, trying to learn the team, trying to learn the system. New coaching. What I’ve learned is, try to stay consistent through whatever adversity is thrown at you. You’re not going to have a good game every time you go out there, but the good players in this league find ways to be consistent.”

Dunn said he considered the preseason acclaim he got to be “noise.” As for that rookie sensation of the NBA game eventually “slowing down,” he said: “The more you learn, the more the game slows down. I’m still learning.”

Minnesota has enough on its plate beyond catering to Dunn’s development right now. It seems to have benefited in an unexpected way, actually, from Zach LaVine’s season-ending ACL knee surgery. Leaning on two young stars in Towns and Wiggins has streamlined the offense. But the Wolves are chasing after the West’s final playoff spot, Rubio has played well and Dunn remains a reserve.

He ranks 11th among the Class of 2016 in points scored (222), 22nd in scoring average (3.6), third in assists (147) and assists average (2.4), 34th in field-goal percentage (37.1 percent), 20th in 3-point percentage (30.4 percent) and ninth in minutes played (1,007).

“Y’know, Kris is going to get so much better, it’s going to be scary when he puts it all together.”

Kart-Anthony Towns

The ROY favorites? For those who won’t vote for Embiid and his 31-game sample size, Philadelphia’s Dario Saric (another 2014 pick), Denver’s Murray and Milwaukee’s Brogdon might rate votes.

The Wolves are hoping Dunn can make good on those mid-to-long-term predictions.

“He’s learning at a great pace,” Towns said. “You can see it by the day, getting better, making wiser decisions. Y’know, Kris is going to get so much better, it’s going to be scary when he puts it all together. And it’s scary that he’s putting it all together against the best guards, possibly, in the league in the West. Night in and night out, he’s challenged. For a person like him who has that competitive spirit, it’s only going to lead to great things for him.”

Any need so far to boost that spirit? “Kris never has given us a chance to pick him up because he’s so confident in his ability. He understands the biggest thing — like I told him since Day 1 — is if you’re not slacking and you put in the work, the result and great success will come. Maybe not immediately but it will. He believes in the work he puts in. That’s why he doesn’t feel down — he knows he’s getting better.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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