He might just be the most dynamic point guard in the country, though you’ve likely never heard his name before.
But you will.
Providence sophomore Kris Dunn is doing it all for the Friars in his first full go-around in college basketball. Dunn averages 15.3 points per game to go along with 7.5 assists (third-most in the country) and 2.6 steals (eighth) per contest.
Dunn is at the forefront of everything Providence (17-6, 7-3 Big East) does on the floor. He’ll lead the athletic Friars on the break, or settle things down when necessary. He can come off a high ball screen and rifle a pass into the lane, or take it upon himself to drive into traffic and get to the rim. He uses his length (6-foot-3) on the defensive end to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm with tipped passes, whether he’s jumping a passing lane at the top of the key or sinking into the paint to stick a hand in to deflect an entry pass.
“When he’s healthy, I think he’s the best point guard in the country,” said LaDontae Henton, Providence’s leading scorer.
That’s been the biggest hurdle for Dunn — staying healthy. He’s undergone a pair of shoulder surgeries in a span of 18 months to after tearing his right labrum twice, the last of which coming in an exhibition game last season that forced him to redshirt.
“Basically, you have to start over,” Dunn said about coming back from the injury. “Just teaching myself how to dribble, how to shoot. And [the shoulder] gets tired easily, too, so you gotta work on the fatigue part and the strengthening part is definitely a key factor to it, too.”
Dunn resorted to the role of spectator as coach Ed Cooley and Co. got hot in last year’s Big East Tournament, defeating St. John’s and Seton Hall before topping Doug McDermott and Creighton 65-58 to capture the crown and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Bryce Cotton — the man who moved from the two-guard to the point with Dunn sidelined, now in the NBA D-League — was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after scoring 23 points in the clinching game. Henton also pitched in with clutch baskets in the final minute to help the Friars hold on.
All the while, Cooley saw Dunn in the team huddles, coaching, helping in any way possible from his spectator viewpoint. Although it was a hard pill for Dunn to swallow at first — watching his team play under the spotlight of Madison Square Garden, the world’s greatest basketball stage — he got the right advice from those close to him that helped him through the process.
“I had a great support system — my teammates, my family, my coaching staff — and they made me realize that it’s not all about me, it’s about the team,” Dunn said. “I had to put my selfishness away and just think about the team because I know how hard they work.”
And so, Dunn pushed hard in the offseason to get healthy again. He knew he was technically a part of the run through MSG, but not in the way he had hoped for. Dunn wanted to be contributing by jumping into passing lanes or exploding off high ball screens, not offering advice from his cushioned seat.
By the time September rolled around, Dunn felt the strength back in his shoulder in pickup games and practice. He was ready. For a guy who’s struggled to find that strength and trust in his shoulder for so long, waiting for the season to start wasn’t an easy task.
But after one-on-one meetings with Cooley, Dunn got the message: “Sitting out for so long — for two years — nobody’s going to come back and make an impact right away.”
Three months into this season, Dunn is doing more than making an impact. He’s stepped up to take a leadership role and is at the center of Providence’s notable encore act from a year ago. The Friars are tied with Butler for second in the Big East, are just a half game behind Villanova and are 20th in RPI as of Wednesday.
Wednesday’s gutsy victory at No. 24 Georgetown showed the many ways Dunn came alter a game.
Early in the first half, Dunn committed a bad turnover near halfcourt, leading to a Georgetown two-on-one with him as the lone defender. Dunn drifted back before breaking into the passing lane to steal it right back, leading to a quick four-on-one the other way that led to a pair of Friar free throws.
At the under-12 timeout of the first half, Dunn went to the bench for a breather. A turnover on the Friars’ first possession after the break prompted Cooley to send Dunn right back to the scorer’s table, and after checking in, dribbled up the court and went right to the bucket, beating the help defense to kiss a layup off the glass with his left hand.
Henton, the team’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, had been struggling to get going with the clock winding down in the first half and Providence down 38-35. Henton had just three points on 0-for-5 shooting to go along with three turnovers. So when Dunn darted into the paint and the Hoyas’ defense caved in on him, there was Henton all alone on the left wing. Dunn kicked it out to the man who always is Dunn’s “No. 1 option,” and Henton rewarded his trust by drilling the triple to knot the game at 38.
“He’s a guy I love playing with,” Henton said on Tuesday. “He’s going to find you in the right spots. He’s a pass-first point guard, but he also can make it tough on opponents by scoring the ball, so he plays with a lot of energy and passion, and he’s just somebody that I love playing with.”
But the Friars needed a big play in the biggest moment to hold on. They needed Kris Dunn to make a Kris Dunn-caliber play.
Providence saw its two-point lead evaporate into a one-point deficit after a questionable deadball technical foul was whistled on the Friars’ Carson Desrosiers, giving Georgetown two free throws for the original foul, an additional two for the technical and possession with 1:51 to go.
With Cooley and the bench fired up, Providence battled back to take a one-point lead with 32 seconds left. Dunn nearly forced a steal early in Georgetown’s final possession, knocking the ball out of bounds in the left corner of the baseline under the Friars’ basket that just missed bouncing off a Hoya fingertip.
Dunn wouldn’t miss another chance. After Georgetown just missing a five-second violation, Dunn jumped up and got a hand on the lofty in-bounds pass and tipped it to Ben Bentil, who was fouled with 9.8 seconds left and ultimately sealed it at the free-throw line.
Dunn finished the game with 12 points, nine assists, six steals and three boards. Not bad for a guy who simply feels blessed to lace them up again.
“That’s what makes it even that much more special to see the on-court success that he’s having, that he’s been able to persevere,” Cooley said. “When you got a kid who’s used to playing like that, to sit out basically 24 months, it’s a credit to his mental toughness.”
There’s one scary part for the Big East and any potential counterpart in March: Cooley says Dunn is still learning.
“Kris has a long way to go,” he said. “He’s just scratching the surface and in doing so, he’s becoming one of the best point guards if not in the Big East, then in the country because I don’t know who’s playing as well as he is over the last three weeks.”
The Big East is fully aware of Dunn’s talents. In time, the rest of the country will be, too.