Ten-day contract guys aren’t supposed to do this.
Honestly, they’re typically not supposed to do much of anything. They’re break-glass-in-case-of-emergency types, guys who usually see the court for extended minutes only if the actual plan has gone massively awry.
But ever since the Utah Jazz first signed Kris Dunn on Feb. 22, he’s made himself shockingly indispensable.
Tuesday’s game in Dallas started slow and looked well on its way to becoming his first nondescript performance with the team — only for him to gain steam and finish with 11 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and a steal.
There weren’t big expectations initially. Maybe there weren’t any real expectations at all. After trading away Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to the Wolves, and Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Lakers, then waiving Russell Westbrook, the Jazz simply had some roster spots to fill just to meet the league-minimum requirement.
And between losing Conley and Alexander-Walker, and seeing Collin Sexton sidelined by a nagging hamstring injury, Utah was just looking for an extra guy capable of playing some minutes as a primary ball-handler behind de facto starter Talen Horton-Tucker.
Dunn has quickly made himself much more than that.
In the six games he’s played with the Jazz, he is averaging 12.6 points, 4.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and only 1.3 turnovers in 23.3 minutes per game. The 54.2% he’s shooting from the field and his 43.8% from beyond the arc are both career-highs by a mile.
Yes, it’s a small sample size, but it’s outsized production nevertheless from a guy now on his second 10-day deal.
But how exactly has the soon-to-be 29-year-old done it?
“I’ve put a lot of work in, and the work’s paying off,” Dunn said simply.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple.
Back in 2016, he was drafted No. 5 overall and thought to be a long-term piece for the Minnesota Timberwolves. A year later, he was part of the same trade that sent Lauri Markkanen’s draft rights to Chicago in exchange for Jimmy Butler, and was thought to be a long-term piece for the Bulls.
Before he signed with the Jazz this season, Dunn had become a short-term piece for … the Capital City Go-Go of the G League.
Rather than bemoan having gone from former lottery pick to treading water in the NBA’s feeder league, the point guard instead used his time there to dig in and further develop.
“The G League really helped my game this year. And to be honest, it’s the most comfortable I’ve felt in the NBA,” Dunn said. “… I had some inconsistency. Now I feel comfortable when I’m playing; I know where my spots are, I’m trying to take good shots.
“… The game is slowing down for me,” he concluded.
Dunn spent a ton of time watching film, not just of himself, but of other players, too — to pick up on offensive tendencies for the sake of both defending them and replicating them. Then he went out and played a bunch of reps, and while his reputation as a nightmare on-ball disruptor persists, he really wanted to focus on expanding his offensive skillset.
So he concentrated on pace — when to push it, when to slow down and establish a rhythm. He threw himself into his teammates, what they like to do, how he could best put them in position to flourish. And more than ever, he dove into refining the mechanics of his shot. While he still sometimes struggles with his touch, he went from 30.3% in the NBA to 41.2% on 2.6 tries per game this year with Capital City. Again, limited sample size, but still …
The numbers he’s put up with the Jazz have at least been consistent with those he had in his 20 games with the Go-Go: 16.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.2 turnovers in 29.5 minutes. Plus, he was at 51.9% from the field on 11.7 FGAs.
Beyond the technical and tactical adjustments, Jazz coach Will Hardy simply likes the attitude that Dunn has brought.
“I think everybody [has] got to see Kris’s competitiveness,” Hardy said. “He’s got a real fire to him when he plays, and he has the ability to kind of change the tempo of the game.”
The coach has consistently mentioned Dunn’s adaptability, a key component of his quick success with the Jazz. In his first few days, when reps were limited, he was asked to simply go out and try to make things happen and find a way to impact the game without knowing all the team’s finer points.
Since then, he’s been soaking up the details, learning on the fly, and finding ways to vary his performance and thus increase his efficacy, all while remaining solidly within the team construct and not going rogue.
It helps that he’s got a familiar face in Markkanen, who was his teammate on the Bulls for three years.
“That’s my guy,” said Dunn. “… Me and Lauri talk each and every day, about the way he plays, how the team plays, what certain guys like to do. Lauri is very knowledgeable and I like to pick his brain. And off the court, he helps me with a lot of things, too. It’s like, going into a new school and you walk in and you see that old friend that you’ve seen in [previous classes] — you’re gonna sit right next to him and try to get the lay of the land.”
Markkanen reciprocated the affection.
“Yeah, I mean, great dude. Just love to share the locker room with him — he has a great personality,” he said. “And obviously, on the court, he can make plays on both ends of the floor. We love his defense. So I’m glad to have him here.”
He’s hardly alone.
Horton-Tucker marveled at how Dunn frequently is “causing havoc on the defensive end, and then being steady on offense.” Rookie wing Ochai Agbaji praised him for being a great communicator defensively, while noting that Dunn brings “some sort of different energy and intensity to our team.”
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder likes that assessment, enthusiastically agreeing that “I’m an energy player.”
His defensive instincts, he said, derived from playing high school football, where as a free safety he had to very quickly diagnose schemes, recognize personnel, discern when to be conservative vs. aggressive, and then apply physicality as needed.
In the intervening years, he’s had to learn to embrace patience, as he’s had to overcome injuries and inconsistencies.
In Chicago, he had a severe MCL sprain in his right knee that necessitated three months of bed rest. Following the resumption of the 2020 season after the COVID-19 pandemic hiatus, Dunn became a free agent, signed with the Hawks, and soon found his ankle and back hurting.
Turns out, loose cartilage in his right ankle was causing him to overcompensate elsewhere, leading to those other issues, and arthroscopic surgery was needed. He subsequently got a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection in his right knee.
Now, Dunn said, he’s finally fully healthy.
“I feel like when I’m 100%, I can help a team win,” he said.
That’s because he’s no longer such a one-dimensional player.
Beyond the injuries, Dunn’s career had been steadily declining for years owing to the fact that, while he had value as a perimeter-defense menace, his ceiling was inherently limited by being a non-factor as a shooter.
He at least was showing some progress initially, going from 28.8% on 3s as a rookie to 32.1% as a sophomore to a respectable 35.4% in his third season. Then, in Year 4, he cratered to 25.9% on 112 attempts.
His shooting issues weren’t simply behind the arc, either — he’s a career 42.4% shooter from the field, and prior to his Jazz stint this year, has never shot better than 44.4% overall in any individual season.
Asked if there was pressure trying to live up to being a lottery pick, he didn’t deny it. But he didn’t lament it, either.
“My first couple years, for sure. And I understand it. You know, when you’re a first-round pick, especially being a lottery pick, that pressure should be on you. Coming out of college and you play well — they expect you to play well [in the NBA],” Dunn said. “[But] everybody’s journey is different. I’ve been in different places, and I’ve dealt with a lot of injuries — I think the beauty of it, for me, is I learned a lot.”
And he’s still learning.
He candidly acknowledged there’s plenty he has yet to learn — not that he’ll let that show while he’s on the court in the midst of the action.
“Just go out there and try to be confident about it,” Dunn said. “Everybody can read your energy, so if you’re confident about it, it resonates with the team.”
And maybe it resurrects your career.