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Kris Dunn’s Improvisational Brilliance Is Good For Providence — And For College Basketball

Providence’s Kris Dunn won’t win player of the year honors (that’ll almost certainly go to Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield), nor will he be the top choice in the upcoming NBA draft (LSU’s Ben Simmons should be No. 1), but he’s worth watching for the way his unique set of skills turns into thrilling plays — for better and worse. The 6-foot-4 junior is the most exciting player in the game, precisely because he isn’t as cookie cutter as other top prospects.

Dunn did two things particularly well last season, as I covered in-depth last year in an article for Deadspin1: He had a preternatural sense of where his fellow Friars were at all times on the court, and he used his length and athleticism to finish plays that, at first glance, appeared ill-advised. There were countless possessions where Dunn would dribble off a screen 25 feet from the basket and whip a one-handed underhand pass to a cutter for the dunk; or, with enough time to run a set play in overtime, he would instead push the ball frenetically up the court to hit a teammate for an and-one before the defense set.

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College point guards don’t typically make those decisions. More often they make the careful pass — the assist the coach has hard-coded into the play call — or the pass they’ve practiced for years and feel comfortable throwing. Dunn, though, has such innate skill and creativity that he attempts passes that should have a high rate of failure, but often succeed because the defense isn’t expecting them. That style allowed Dunn to lead the nation in assist percentage (at a staggering 50.0 percent last season, and 44.2 during this campaign2). Thrilling as all that was, it often led to some alarmingly bad turnovers — about 20 percent of his possessions — even when you take into account his high usage rate.

But this season, the consensus is that Dunn is the nation’s top point guard. To become it, Dunn had to make a few tweaks to his game.


Dunn spent the offseason working with former Providence guard God Shammgod, who has become a quasi mentor-trainer to Dunn. They had several goals in mind: First, Dunn needed to upgrade his jump shot, which was wildly inconsistent from just about everywhere on the court. Second, he needed to tighten his handle to limit turnovers. And third, he had to develop several countermoves, should savvy defenders who had studied game film fail to bite on Dunn’s initial move.

Dunn’s jump shot as a sophomore was streaky — a reel full of bad, caroming rocks that either just hit the backboard or fell wildly off the back iron. Since his long arms make it nearly impossible for a defender to block his shot, it was a priority that he improve this component of his game to maximize his advantages. He also gets great separation thanks to a quick first step and a backpack full of crosses, between-the-legs moves and feints.

He worked on a more consistent step-back, which he now uses when he drives the lane or is in isolation, rising high in the air with a ramrod-straight form that gives him a clean look at the rim. Providence coach Ed Cooley is also using Dunn off the ball, letting teammate Kyron Cartwright run point while Dunn comes off several screens. That allows Dunn to either feed Ben Bentil, a hulking sophomore forward — or catch-and-shoot a pass from a teammate.

According to Synergy Sports Technology, Dunn’s spot-up numbers are still below average, but he now scores one point per catch-and-shoot possession — that’s pretty good, and a vast improvement over the .76 points he scored a year ago. And his jumper should only get better given the fundamental improvements he made in the offseason. Dunn is connecting on 37 percent of his threes while taking them at a far higher rate than last season — 25.9 percent of his field goal attempts, up from 19.7 last season. He now shoots with the perfect follow through — his arms extend and his hands rest like they’re in a cookie jar. The shots that were ugly bricks are beginning to show just a little more touch, like the game winner he hit against Creighton, which hit the flat section of the bucket that connects to the backboard, died on the rim, and finally rolled softly in.

Some have criticized Dunn, and his NBA potential, because of his turnovers. Though the guard assists on 45 percent of Providence’s shots, which is second in Division I, he also gives the ball away on 85 of his 425 possessions (through Providence’s loss to Marquette this week). Since Dunn’s dimes typically account for about 2.4 points in the halfcourt and transition, the Friars have missed out on more than 200 points this season when Dunn loses control.

On other teams, those miscues might find a guard strapped to the bench. But for Dunn the giveaways don’t matter. A 25-foot pass through Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone defense during a game in late February is the kind of play Cooley wants, regardless of the risk. Midway through the first half, Dunn saw a brief opening between Larry Austin and Kaiser Gates, and threaded a pass (from Providence’s half-court logo) to Bentil, who certainly wasn’t calling for the ball but was able to convert an and-one. Similarly, Cooley needs his junior guard to consistently draw the defense’s attention so his Friar ‘mates can benefit from that extra second of breathing room. This happened in a Villanova victory when Dunn slipped a backdoor pass to Junior Lomomba: He wasn’t doubled, but Dunn reacted to all five Villanova players tracking his moves as he came off a Bentil pick. Again, Lomomba wasn’t exactly expecting the ball, but he made the lay-up.

Sure, Dunn will take some shots — like a one-on-three fast break that has become a bit of a staple of his game this season — that might cause some to cringe. But Cooley is willing to incur the cost of a few bad shots if it means his squad can operate with offensive impunity.

Dunn’s impact on the game, negative and positive, is what makes him so fascinating to watch. Buddy Hield, Ben Simmons, and Maryland’s Melo Trimble are equally as talented, impressive, and fun to watch, but none inspire quite the same combination of mouth-agape incredulity and absolute production as Dunn. So when he puts the ball behind his back, then crosses over Michigan State’s Tum Tum Nairn, only to follow with a spin move to the rack and then misses the layup, don’t think of it as a wasted possession. Instead, imagine it as a thrilling experiment in risk and reward, the type of audacious and improvisational brilliance that the college game doesn’t produce anymore.


  1. At the time, I wish he had used the momentum of his standout sophomore season to declare for the NBA draft, where he would have likely been a first-round pick.
  2. To put this in context, just 23 other high-major point guards had assist rates above 30 percent, and just two — Denzel Valentine of Michigan State and Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans — topped 40 percent.

Matt Giles has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.

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