Providence coach Ed Cooley is renowned for his recruiting foresight, having helped land Craig Smith, Tyrese Rice, and other under-scouted players as an assistant at Boston College, but there weren't many layers for him to peel back with Kris Dunn, the most thrilling passer in the country.
Dunn came to Providence as the second-ranked point guard in the 2012 class, and was supposed to shove the Friars immediately into the top 25. But injuries to his right shoulder—including a fluke incident during an exhibition game—necessitated two surgeries, and he played just 29 games in two years. This season is the first time we've really had an extended look at him; he's been spectacular, and spectacularly, gloriously reckless.
There isn't a DI player with Dunn's vision, passing touch, and or general sense of fuck-it-why-not. Dunn throws passes that a normal guard would blanch at making, either because they couldn't see the angle if you spotted them a protractor and a pause button, or because just about any other guard would be nailed to the bench if he tried this shit. He's handing out an assist on 50.5 percent of his possessions, a rate that leads Ken Pomeroy's database. He also commits a turnover on 24.3 percent of his possessions.
Look at him here against Xavier. In overtime, Dunn grabs the loose ball, a product of a blocked XU shot, takes two dribbles and then unfurls a nearly halfcourt pass to PC wing LaDontae Henton. But Henton wasn't open—Dunn just placed the ball exactly where only Henton could corral it, and with minimal effort, then drop step into an and-1 that sealed the win for Providence.
Dunn's playmaking is a direct rebuke to college basketball's broader movement toward never scoring at all. He was recruited to Providence because of his swashbuckling, aggressive style, and because he's the fulcrum to Providence's offense—nearly a third of PC's possessions run through the guard—he has the luxury to make those passes, and his coach's support even if he makes a turnover on a quarter of his touches.
"I've always coached with trust," says Cooley. "I don't know how many coaches would allow a player to turn the ball over nine times and stick with him, but that's how you build players. It's not about December—it's about late January and February when players aren't making mistakes because they are grown."
Think about that: Dunn is just as likely to dribble the ball off his foot or fire it past the ear of a teammate caught unaware as he is to make a cross-court, underhand whip to a streaking Tyler Harris, yet Cooley keeps the green light running.
It's worth mentioning that without improvements to his own offense, he wouldn't be nearly as effective. As a freshman in 2013, Dunn had a shaky jump shot and lacked the strength to finish consistently at the rim, and despite the small sample size, opposing teams still sagged off Dunn.
Dunn used that year off not only to gain strength, but also to rebuild his jumper from the ground up. Now when defenders go under screens, like Georgetown's LJ Peak in this one clip, Dunn took advantage and splashed a three. Sure, the motion is slow a all hell, but he's converting 42 percent of his Big East shots behind the arc.
Dunn's quickness and intricate dribble have always afforded him separation from his defender, but previously when he'd get that opening, he didn't know what to do with it. His body wouldn't be squared, his feet haphazardly placed, rarely would he make the resulting shot—just .46 points per off the dribble jumper as a frosh, which is a mark you'd expect of a player who replaced his arms with chainsaws, perhaps, but not one of the best point guard prospects in the country. An element of his offensive growth was learning to set his feet, and he now converts more than a point per shot off the dribble, as evidenced by this step-back versus Creighton in mid-January. The defending big flat-hedges Dunn off the pick to prevent the guard from getting to the rim, where is connecting on 58 percent of his attempts this season, but that step-back gives Dunn an extra beat and he makes the mid-range two.
Without this development, Dunn wouldn't be nearly as effective. "If you look the way I've coached through the years," stresses Cooley, "you'll notice my guards are dual threats, players that lead the league in assists and are also high in scoring."
Providence often relies on a flex motion offense when in the halfcourt; it shortens the game and is predicated on interior cuts, screens, and curls, all intended to get the ball to a Friar in good spot. The flex also ensures there is always a Friar properly positioned for an offensive board, which is why PC grabs more than a third of its misses. The flex is a precision offense that requires pristine timing and placement to squeeze out a margin—the pass has to be there when a Friar curls around a down screen—and Dunn is perfectly suited for its intricacies.
In this play, the entire Georgetown defense is focused on the right side of the floor, where both Dunn and Henton—half of PC's points in 2015—are positioned. As Hoya big Joshua Smith turns his head for a moment to identify the Friars' offensive set, Carson Desrosiers cuts along the baseline and hip checks Smith, his defender. Smith is momentarily out of position, but Dunn had already begun his windup to hit Desrosiers with a one-handed bounce pass.
Without Dunn's pinpoint pass, Smith might have been able to recover in time to force a turnover or a reset.
To see the true mastery of Dunn's game, though, you have to watch him in transition, during pick and roll possessions, and simply freestyling, all three of which account for a majority of PC's plays.
Transition first. The Friars are the nation's sixth tallest team, yet 6-foot-3 Dunn leads the squad in defensive rebounds. This allows PC to immediately run and pressure the defense. More than half of Dunn's assists are buckets at the rim, and Cooley instructs his bigs—after Dunn secures the board—to run to the block and post up. Dunn needs just a few dribbles to start the offense, and the big, in this case freshman Ben Bentil, gets the ball having already sealed his man (who is often an opposing guard) without a help defender in sight.
Dunn looks gangly, but has a quick first step that manifests itself whenever a defender attempts to hard-hedge the guard, so most of his passes in pick and roll possessions are more than twenty feet from the basket, a feat that takes astonishing precision. This pass to Bentil comes off a pick set for Kyron Cartwright, but Dunn wastes no effort whistling the pass to the big.
This is what makes Dunn unique, and why opponents struggle to contain him. Most pocket passes are within a very tight space constraint—you don't have time to stop and then deliver a pass, it has to be done quickly—yet after Desrosiers sets a pick, Dunn dribbles long enough to draw the attention of Georgetown's Isaac Copeland before whipping a perfectly timed 30 feet pocket pass to Desrosiers for the lay-in. That play is astoundingly difficult, yet Dunn's delivery was so nonchalant, it might as well have been a thumbs-out chest pass. According to Cooley, "Kris is learning when he can trust his teammates and when he should throw the ball to them because they are in their sweet spot, not just because they are open."
Providence's offense hums best when Dunn does his own thing. he's good at squaring his body and then exploding past a defender, and uses his size, the added strength, and a full complement of Euro steps, crab hops, and windmill dribbles to finish around the bucket. This transition bucket against Miami showcases Dunn's unreal athleticism—after drop stepping around the Hurricane guard, he angles his arm out of the way of the shotblocker, absorbs the contact, and sets up an and-1.
And if a team manages to keep Dunn out of the lane, he always finds Henton, the Friar with whom most often connects with for Professor X-type passes. "They have an intrinsic trust," says Cooley. Henton is on the receiving end of the majority of Dunn's assists, and whether those passes are in the open court or off of dribble penetration, Dunn manages to always find Henton to complete the play.
The combination of unreal court awareness, improved offensive skill-set, and passing acumen makes Dunn the most interesting guard in college basketball, the rare five-star talent who was a complete unknown as no one knew how his injuries would affect his game. His coach, however, one of the best at realizing a player's real talent, was aware: "Kris was gone for two years, so everyone forgot about him. He has everyone's attention now."
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