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NBA Rookie Preview: Kris Dunn

AP Photo/Nati Harnik
AP Photo/Nati Harnik

With their previous two first-round picks, the Minnesota Timberwolves plucked explosive wing Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns. This year, they chose a playmaker in Kris Dunn, who’s arguably the best point guard in the field. The 6’4″ rookie has tantalizing two-way potential, but his immediate future is complicated.

Armed with speed, creative vision and superb defensive instincts, Dunn overwhelmed NCAA opponents while starring at Providence. He returned from sophomore shoulder surgery to lead the Big East in assists in 2014-15 (7.5 per game), and he wrapped up his college career as one of 2016’s most electrifying prospects.

Even though the Wolves already had a point guard in Ricky Rubio, they couldn’t pass up Dunn’s tremendous tools.

Trade rumors swirled around Rubio during the summer, but owner Glen Taylor cooled those off. For now, it looks like Dunn will come off the bench, share minutes with Rubio and perhaps even play alongside him for stretches. Given the inconsistent play we’ve seen from Dunn in the preseason, what can we expect throughout his rookie year?

Offensive role, expectations and limitations

Dunn’s greatest offensive asset right now is attacking opponents off the bounce and making plays. Coach Tom Thibodeau will hand him the wheel when Rubio rests and give him opportunities to be creative.

We can expect a healthy dose of pick-and-rolls designed to empower Dunn and other reserves like Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica. Dunn thrived in pick-and-rolls at Providence, thanks to his shiftiness, explosive finishes and laser-quick passes. Minnesota will flummox opponents if it finds ways to get Dunn rolling in his comfort zone.

Dunn is lethal when he turns the corner. He has a nice blend of patience, vision and the knack for changing speeds when necessary. These two plays against NCAA champion Villanova show his passing precision coming off ball screens. Watch how he deftly splits the double team and finds the open man:

 

And this pair of Summer League buckets give you a taste of his ability to slash and score:

 

In preseason action, Dunn has dished 4.3 assists per game in 23.4 minutes per game. He’s offered glimpses of brilliant quarterback skill, although he’s had a couple nights with four-plus turnovers. Given his aggressiveness and creativity, he’ll commit a bunch of giveaways in the regular season.

The most concerning aspect of his game at this juncture is his outside shooting. His unreliable jumper could cost him significant production and Rookie of the Year contention.

Shooting was never his strength in college, although he steadily improved from 29 percent to 37 percent from three-land during his time at Providence. But during this preseason, he’s simply struggling to make any shot away from the basket. Through five exhibition tilts, he’s 4-of-27 outside the paint. Dunn’s form and follow-through aren’t as smooth or deliberate as you’d like to see from a primary ball-handler.

While Dunn could become a solid shooter throughout the course of his career, he will likely be a low-efficiency one this season. Thibodeau will use lineups and schemes accordingly. In pick-and-roll situations, Thibs should use screen-setters who can bury triples, such as Bjelica and Towns. That will help put pressure on defenses and give Dunn more space to operate.

Zach Harper of A Wolf Among Wolves proposed experimenting with a dual point guard lineup. However, he noted that Rubio and Dunn’s shaky shooting may limit their offensive ceiling:

…Offensively is where the questions come about…We know Rubio isn’t exactly Mark Price out there and Dunn’s shot is a work in progress (but he is at least a scorer). The spacing could be tricky with the two of them out there on the floor if the defense doesn’t feel the need to respect at least two of the shooters on the floor.

I don’t think Dunn will continue shooting this poorly outside the paint. However, his roller-coaster jump shot will keep his scoring numbers in check. If Dunn’s defensive talent (more on that later) sways Thibodeau to play Dunn for 20-25 minutes per contest, the rookie’s per-game stats will look like this: 9-12 points, 4-5 assists, three turnovers, 38 percent shooting, 25 percent on three-pointers.

Defensive outlook

Dunn has looked the part of an NBA backcourt defender during Summer League and preseason. He has exceptional lateral burst to contain drivers, and his long arms (6’9″ wingspan) and instincts force opponents into mistakes.

It won’t be easy for him to consistently stop Western Conference point guards. As you may know, they’re a talented bunch, and even many backups are explosive and versatile. However, Dunn will do a better job of slowing them down than most rookies.

His defensive footwork and agility as an on-ball defender is rare. Dunn has the ability to cut on a dime nimbly, so he can react to everything attackers do, even on speedy change-of-direction moves. He’s also good at recovering around screens and limiting their effects.

Most first-year guards will feel lucky just to stay in front of their man. Dunn’s not like that, for better or worse. He relishes putting pressure on ball-handlers, and he’s enjoyed three different multi-steal games during the preseason. The downside is that his overzealousness has resulted in a couple of nights with four-plus fouls.

 

Here are a couple of examples of his ball-hawking talent. Watch him fight around the screen, reposition himself and pick Emmanuel Mudiay’s pocket. Then later, as a help defender, he victimized Jamal Murray:

 

He’s not quite as formidable as young guards like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, but he’s in that general neighborhood. Opposing guards won’t have fun trying to maneuver past him.

Dunn’s capable and long enough to spend time checking 2-guards this season. That means he can switch sometimes when going through screens, and he’s more interchangeable from a lineup-planning standpoint. If Thibs wants him to take the tougher assignment  (rather than someone like Zach LaVine or Brandon Rush), he can experiment with it.

It also means that Harper’s proposed dual point-guard lineup with Rubio could shine defensively. They would only be able to share the floor for short spurts, but it would be fun because Dunn and Rubio have loads of speed and cunning.

When the dust settles from an entertaining 2016-17 campaign, Dunn will have laid a nice foundation for the future. Even if his jump-shot struggles, he’ll still find ways to slash, create and make noise on defense. If Rubio gets traded at some point this year, Dunn could flourish even more with confidence and increased reps. Either way, he’ll be an exciting backcourt addition during Minnesota’s climb back toward the playoffs.

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