Kris Dunn’s new contract and potential for more progress thrill his teammates

“How ’Bout This Jazz” newsletter: After excelling on a pair of 10-day deals, the point guard will be here awhile longer. Plus, some more THT analysis, and one player’s early thoughts on the NCAA Tournament.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11) pulls down a rebound as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

Kris Dunn found a way to make an impact for the Utah Jazz shortly after his arrival.

In his very first game with the team after signing a 10-day contract, he totaled 15 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds in 23 minutes in a victory over the Spurs.

Since then, the former lottery pick and some of those around him have sought to explain the growth in his game, which has made him a consistent contributor since his arrival.

Just days ago, with Dunn’s second 10-day deal set to expire, the team did the obvious thing and signed him to a contract that will keep him with the Jazz for the rest of this season, and includes a nonguaranteed option for the team to retain his services next season, too.

Naturally, those he’s playing with and for are thrilled for him.

“Those are the easy, feel-good moments over the course of a season,” said coach Will Hardy. “… He’s continued to fight and claw and work and go into the G League and now getting the call-up with us. You’re on a 10-day, and then you get the second 10-day — it’s still uneasy, you don’t know. There’s plenty of situations where the 10-days run out and it’s like, ‘Hey, thanks for being here, and see you later,’ so [I’m] super-happy for him and his family to see that his his hard work has paid off.”

All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen, who was a teammate of Dunn’s for three seasons in Chicago, was similarly thrilled.

“He’s worked his butt off the whole time trying to get back and get healthy, and going through the G League and now bouncing back,” Markkanen said. “… He deserves it for sure. And I’m happy to be his teammate.”

Hardy noted that Dunn has been a valuable presence in the locker room because, among a group of largely non-demonstrative teammates, the point guard is boisterous and loud and engaging. The coach also mentioned how fun it has been to witness the guard’s on-court evolution: He remains a defensive menace, of course, but he’s shown tremendous improvement offensively with the ability to break down a defense, to make good decisions, to finish well in the floater range, and to take good 3s and make them at a high clip.

He may never be a focal point of an offense as he was initially projected to be, but he’s also a good reminder — to pundits, fans, coaches, and other players — that there’s always room for some improvement if you’re willing to put in the work.

“I think we’re all a little bit quick to judge players too quickly. There’s certain people that we will label as, ‘Oh no, he’s got great upside,’ and so we give them the benefit of the doubt; and then for whatever reason, there’s certain players that get labeled very quickly [based on] what they can and can’t do, and we seem to forget that they can improve as well,” Hardy said. “It’s a constant reminder for me that a goal for me as a coach would be to never judge a player too early. Kris has shown the ability to get better. And … I think he can continue to get better. Kris is in no way at his ceiling right now.”

THT as PG, continued

Obviously, there was a lot of attention focused on Talen Horton-Tucker the past week or so, given some of his big performances during the team’s road trip, like against Orlando and then particularly vs. Charlotte, but one thing Hardy said as he was discussing THT’s acclimation to playing point guard full-time caught my attention — that he’s trying to put Horton-Tucker in positions where his reads are a bit cleaner.

So after Thursday’s practice, I asked the coach to explain what he meant by that and how they were making it happen. I found his response really illuminating:

“Just putting him in some spots where there’s less people moving while he’s having to make those decisions. When he’s driving the ball, if we can have his teammates be cleaner with their spacing and a little bit less movement happening on the weak side — it’s hard to drive the ball and be reading two or three moving targets on the weak side. I think when our offensive players are a little more static in those situations, he then only has to read the defenders; the defenders are usually the only people that are moving in that situation. We like to play a lot of off-ball action — that’s been a big part of how we’ve played this season — but I do think trying to be deliberate with Talen about when we’re giving him opportunities to attack and make those reads to try to keep his teammates spaced in a cleaner way, it gives him the best opportunity to make those decisions correctly more often than not.”

NCAA Tournament watching

Every year, it seems like the trash talking in the locker room picks up a bit, as players start extolling their respective college program’s chances of winning the NCAA Tournament.

Quite a few players on this Jazz team saw their school make it to the Big Dance: Ochai Agbaji/Udoka Azubuike (Kansas), Jordan Clarkson (Missouri), Walker Kessler (Auburn), Collin Sexton (Alabama), Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga), Rudy Gay (UConn), Juan Toscano-Anderson (Marquette), Johnny Juzang (UCLA), Markkanen (Arizona), Dunn (Providence), and Horton-Tucker (Iowa State).

So, what happens if two of those schools get matched up? Friendly wager on top of bragging rights?

“I think that’s automatic, if someone[’s schools] play each other,” Markkanen said after Thursday’s practice. “I haven’t talked to the guys, but at least on previous teams [I’ve been on], if you play each other, you have that kind of thing.”

Not that he’ll need to worry about such things after his No. 2-seeded Wildcats suffered a late meltdown and were upset by No. 15 Princeton …

Still, turns out, the only Jazz players this season without a program involved in the tournament are Damian Jones (Vanderbilt), two-way big Micah Potter (Wisconsin) … and Italy native Simone Fontecchio.

“Freaking internationals,” the Finnish Markkanen said in mock disgust as he got up to leave.