After a tumultuous rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kris Dunn was headed down the path of bust consideration. One season later, in a new system with very different expectations, it’s hard to suggest Dunn’s first season in Chicago wasn’t a success.
Dunn dramatically improved, posting significant increases in almost all per-game metrics. More notably, the sophomore guard emerged as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. Using his 6-foot-4 frame to chase and bully his opponent, only Victor Oladipo, Eric Bledsoe and Jimmy Butler averaged more steals per game.
Dunn’s growth as a player was obvious on the court, but his impact was most felt when he was off it. Despite plus-minus metrics suggesting otherwise, the Bulls missed Dunn when he wasn’t available for 30 games this year due to an array of minor injuries. In his absence no other Bulls point guard had the ability to move the ball with pace or create as many looks at the basket as Dunn did. In that regard, it highlighted Dunn’s potential as a starting guard, or at least exceeded the lowly expectations set during his horrid first season.
As surprisingly good as Dunn was, it should be noted that a large portion of how we view Dunn’s success can be simply attributed to an increase in opportunity.
Playing on a roster devoid of talent, Dunn had little competition in the backcourt. As such, he was relied on more than his rookie season, averaging an additional 12.2 minutes per game. More minutes allows for more possessions, especially starting at point guard and being handed the keys to an offense starving of creation – his usage and assist percentage increased by 10.5 percent and 13.9 percent, respectively.
An uplift in statistical output through greater volume isn’t necessarily a detraction, but it does raise the question of how good Dunn actually can be, particularly when the offensive burden begins to shift to Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.
It’s easy to view Dunn’s quick progression from a potential bust to a niche defense-first starting guard (at a minimum), as an indication of future potential. A steep and rapid uptick in per game production was great. Development, though, isn’t always linear – an increase at the same rate going forward is highly unlikely. He also already turned 24, influencing any projection of future growth.
When comparing Dunn’s output this season to others, it does raise some questions on how high Dunn’s ceiling truly is. Like Dunn, Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier has had a breakout season of his own, starting in place of injured Kyrie Irving to close the season and into the playoffs.
It may seem sacrilegious to compare Dunn, a second-year player, a former top-five pick, and a key piece to the Bulls’ rebuild to a player like Rozier. Rozier is a third-year player drafted outside the lottery, having played the majority of his career as a backup. Expectations weren’t high for Rozier, and in some ways they still aren’t. Despite a career season, the depth of the point guard position will likely cap his ceiling as a low-level starter.
But there is merits in such a comparison. Despite Rozier having played an additional season, both are 23-year-olds who entered the league with a baseline of potentially-elite defensive abilities and physical profiles. Their per-100-possession numbers in this ‘breakout season’ are eerily similar, with Dunn amassing more assists but having a very low true shooting percentage.
It’s important to recognize the contextual differences in role and situation and its impact on these numbers. Though Dunn was afforded a starting job and significantly more volume to ply his trade, he did so alongside inferior talent, in a situation designed to lose as many games as possible. Conversely, in a limited role on one the league’s best teams, there is an obvious benefit Rozier gained in a Brad Stevens coached offense and observing an All-Star like Irving scheming his way through pick-and-roll action.
These variables should be considered in any comparison, and it’s difficult to weigh the differences in role and expectation. But ultimately, even if their environment isn’t that close, the two are very close statistically.
Knowing that, how should this make us feel about Dunn moving forward? Would it be wrong of the Celtics fanbase to be as high on their backup point guard as Bulls fans appear to be with Dunn? Are we buying in to what Dunn achieved this season, given his ultimate numbers closely align to a player once considered in having a limited ceiling?
The answer to this question is still largely unknown. Rozier has been spectacular for the Celtics as the postseason has progressed, and he may soon prove he is in fact a quality starting point guard. And if their statistical production is reliant enough to draw a prediction, Dunn could follow a similar path next season.
But is it enough for Dunn to become as effective as Terry Rozier? Considering the stakes and his role within the rebuild - and the Bulls likely bypassing a guard in the upcoming draft - it may not be.
Some in Bulls media have definitely bought in, and it’s likely an opinion informed by the team itself:
I’d disagree that Dunn had a very inconsistent season. Maybe injury-plagued. But there was enough of a body of work to feel confident with him as the starting point guard for the future.
I also believe Dunn has more potential to be an impact player than Trae Young.
if you merely take LaVine playing at all — and showing some strong flashes — as a positive, then, yes, there’s some to like from last season. Markkanen and Dunn looked legit to me.
Perhaps any comparison to Rozier based purely on possession-based metrics is unfounded. In time, Dunn may prove that his improvement in year two, though fueled largely due to an increase in volume, wasn’t just a leap off the bust list but the catalyst to his rise as a star. Time will tell, but unlike other teams, the Bulls are hoping their current iteration of such a player can grow into its long-term point guard option. Kris Dunn still has more to show to get to another higher level, but he’ll definitely get that chance.