After two shoulder surgeries in three years, Providence guard Kris Dunn is finally becoming the player everyone thought he would be.
As he continued the process of becoming the player everyone expected him to be, Kris Dunn put a basketball in a trash bag last summer. Then he began to dribble. Twice in the past three years doctors have cut open his right shoulder to repair it, with the second surgery robbing him of most of the 2013-14 season at Providence. The ensuing rehab process forced Dunn, a point guard, to reevaluate every aspect of his game—even dribbling.
First, Dunn was encouraged to be softer on the ball. Pounding it to the floor hard, as players are taught, would fatigue his shoulder and arm too quickly. He also had to control that dribble better, and this is where the garbage bag came in. It dulled Dunn’s natural feel; if he lost concentration, the ball slipped away. He became a coveted All-American recruit in 2012 and the centerpiece of a Providence rebuild by playing with abandon, but two years of frustration and injury suggested this was no longer an option. When he returned, Dunn had to play with the parking brake on. To move ahead, he had to slow down.
“It’s frustrating at first, but then you have to find ways to get around it,” Dunn says. “I had to change my game.”
The result is Dunn emerging as a member of a small group of college guards who are neither scorer nor distributor nor defender—but rather all of those at the same time. The Friars (18-8) appear destined for another NCAA tournament appearance as they travel to face DePaul on Wednesday, and Dunn’s comprehensive output is a significant reason why. At 6'3", he is the team’s per-game leader in rebounds (5.8), assists (7.6) and steals (2.8), while ranking second in scoring (15.4) and minutes played (33.5) to forward LaDontae Henton.
“He brings everything to the table,” Henton says. “And when I say that, I mean everything. He’s everywhere on the court.”
As of Wednesday morning, Dunn’s assist and steal averages respectively rank third and fifth in the country. When he’s on the floor, more than half of his teammates’ buckets are Dunn deals: His assist percentage of 51.5 is first in the nation. The redshirt sophomore’s usage rate of 30.4% is No. 1 on the team, and he plays 79.8% of available minutes. There are still glitches in the programming (a queasy 4.2 turnovers per outing, for starters), but Dunn dominates the action on both ends of the floor like few others can.
He has played in just 54 college games across three seasons, and fewer than that at optimal health. To his coach, Dunn is akin to a second-semester freshman, still finding his way. “People are starting to know about Kris,” Providence coach Ed Cooley says, “but the real Kris Dunn still hasn’t shown up.”
Defining the real Kris Dunn, actually, has been a critical element of this process. He arrived in 2012 as a five-star, top-20 national prospect out of New London, Conn., a hard-charging guard who imbued a program with a new level of hope. He also arrived with a torn labrum. He had surgery the July before his freshman season, delaying his debut until late December. Of the 25 games he did play that season, Cooley throws out the first seven or eight out because Dunn’s grasp of nuanced concepts in the college game was “horrendous,” in the coach’s estimation. After Dunn dominated a secret scrimmage against Harvard in the fall of 2013, the Providence staff was bubbling in anticipation of pairing prolific senior Bryce Cotton with Dunn in the backcourt. Then, chasing down a loose ball in a Nov. 2 exhibition against Rhode Island College, Dunn injured the shoulder again. He attempted to play through pain, logging 106 total minutes in four games, but opted for season-ending surgery in early December.
Doctors told him they’d seen plenty of players thrive after a surgery that involved implanting screws into the shoulder and stitching in place muscles that had moved around. They told Dunn he had only a 10% chance of re-injuring the shoulder. “A lot of bad thoughts were running through my head,” Dunn says. “I didn’t know if I could play again or not.”
He would, though he wouldn’t be the same. In many ways this was a good and necessary thing: Dunn’s overall approach required rehab, too. He needed to temper his instinctive aggression. “You see where Derrick Rose plays—I’m not going to call it ‘kamikaze,’ but he plays like he’s playing football,” Cooley says. “I said to (Dunn), you need to be more of a quarterback, where you may have to slide and take a knee. If there’s a loose ball somewhere and the game isn’t on the line, you may have to let that one go.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this precise example arose during a preseason practice in which Dunn lunged after one of those loose balls. Once Cooley exhaled in relief, he immediately upbraided his star guard: You can’t do that anymore.
“You have to think the game,” Dunn says, recalling the lesson. “I’m a lot smarter now. I’m not playing out of control like I used to, when I first came in. I’m thinking the game more.”
It was but a piece of a well-thought path to recovery.
Dunn also worked to move the release point on his shot from somewhat behind his head to in front of his nose; the more conventional alignment that has helped him to a respectable adjusted field goal percentage of 47.5 on jump shots, per Synergy Sports data. He worked with former Providence point guard God Shammgod, who had returned to campus for graduate courses, on the ball-handling tweaks. It was Shammgod’s idea, in fact, to wrap the basketball in the garbage bag, and during cone drills Shammgod swiped incessantly to ensure Dunn kept his dribble low. When Dunn leapt for rebounds, he focused on reaching with both arms—a small change from his formerly one-handed approach that improved ball security while protecting his arm and shoulder.
He refined technique from there. Dunn was what Cooley calls a “wind-up passer,” wasting motion for tenths of a second before sending the ball to a teammate. Focusing on tighter, crisper delivery made it that much more difficult for defenses to recover or jump the pass. Likewise coaches worked with Dunn on simple jump-stops in the lane to limit the offensive fouls his aggressiveness brought about early in his career. Nor could Dunn dribble end line to end line at full speed every time; Cooley told him 75% had to be fast enough, and if a defense was set, Dunn had to throttle back to 15%. All of it was aimed at creating a more measured, efficient player. “For him,” Cooley says, “less was more.”
In other areas, more happened to be more. Dunn arrived on campus with the same appreciation for recovery and stretching that most freshmen have, which is to say he had none at all. Two shoulder procedures demanded a more responsible approach there, so Dunn now shows up for a pre-practice massage, dips in the hot tub and cold tub and then some band work to loosen up the area around his rotator cuff. He also might throw a medicine ball with a trainer to build up arm strength, or do light push-ups to keep the shoulder blades tight. After practice, it’s another massage, and another couple rounds in the hot tub and cold tub.
Dunn estimates it’s two hours apiece, on both sides of a workout, devoted to preventative measures. It’s both tedious and mature. “I complain about it,” he says, “but we just get it done.”
Cooley, of course, doesn’t ask Dunn to endure rebounding drills or other physical tests anymore. Much of the guard’s practice time is spent in five-on-five work or five-on-none walkthroughs. But coaches see no restrictions other than the ones they apply.
“We thought we would see some limited mobility,” Cooley says. “He has shown none of that. If anything, I think he’s stronger.”
The production supports that diagnosis. Even if the shooting and scoring numbers aren’t pupil-dilating, Dunn’s performance on both ends of the floor merits consideration in Big East Player of the Year voting. (Cooley cracks that if you had Dunn and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein in the same lineup, “I don’t know if the other team would score.”) Dunn can be better at the free-throw line (he shoots 66.2 percent) and he can be better about committing silly fouls or turnovers. Still, those also are kinks generally worked out through repetition, which he is getting more and more of weekly. “He looks like the best point guard in the league right now,” Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy says. “The ball flows through his hands the whole game and that’s where he’s really, really comfortable. It’s made him confident. He’s the guy.”
It’s about where Dunn was expected to be at this point, three years removed from the recruiting hysteria. No one planned for the detours along the route. Those within the Providence program insist they are not surprised he endured it all, and did so with reasonably good cheer. Kris Dunn, his head coach says, will tell stories that “have the entire locker room laughing their ass off.” Kris Dunn, his teammate says, will jump up to dance when a rhythm, any rhythm, suits him. “Any type of music,” Henton says, “he’ll start making a move to it.” This is who he is and who he always has been, even through the low moments.
At this particular moment, he has slowed down and is forging ahead. “Right now,” Dunn says, “I’m in a good spot.”