Kris Dunn has ridden his unique confidence to become the Utah Jazz’s most reliable point guard

The 29-year-old journeyman Is playing the best basketball of his career.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11).

When he’s on the court, Kris Dunn has a unique habit: he trash talks his head coach.

Wait, what?

No, it’s true, Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “Every basket he scored, he would turn and he would flex at me. So I finally asked him, ‘What are you doing? Are you flexing at me? I’m rooting for you, man.’”

And Dunn’s response was confirmed by both sides: “I’m just letting you know I’m here.”

Kris Dunn is here. Less than 30 NBA games out of the G League, and as a 29-year-old, he’s playing the best basketball of his career. Heck, he might be the Jazz’s best point guard right now.

“Kris’ tenacity when he plays is something that our team needs,” Hardy said. “He’s brought a real fight and hunger to our team every day — and he’s a joy to be around.”

An up-and-down journey

Dunn, the former No. 5 pick in the NBA draft, had a rough start to his career as an NBA player. Drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was traded a year later to the Chicago Bulls, part of the deal that earned the Bulls the Lauri Markkanen pick. But he scuffled there, hampered by a wild jump shot and turnover-prone play.

In the end, he was waived in 2021 as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies in training camp, which began a two-year journey in the NBA’s version of Quadruple-A, bouncing between the minor and major leagues. The first year, his 10-day contracts came with the Portland Trail Blazers, but didn’t result in a permanent home.

Then he really improved in 2023 with the Capital City Go-Go, where he was the undisputed leader of Mike Williams’ team. (The Jazz hired Williams this season as an assistant coach.) The Jazz called Dunn up — and immediately gave him the second-most minutes of any player on the roster.

That made sense — because Dunn was on fire. After shooting a combined 42% from the floor and 29% from the 3-point line in his previous years in the NBA, he shot 54% from the field and 47% from deep in his 23 games with the Jazz. He led the team in assists as well, while keeping his turnovers to a minuscule 1.6 per game.

The understandable worry was that was an end-of-year outlier, but Dunn, so far, has continued to play at that level. The Jazz seem to play their best basketball with him on the floor — even as he went scoreless this week in a 114-94 win against the New Zealand Breakers, the Jazz outscored the Breakers by a point per minute with Dunn in the game.

That might be because of his stellar defensive play. Even in his first NBA stint, Dunn earned All-Defensive team votes, a characteristic he has carried over to his NBA rebirth. “He is a defensive ball hawk, first and foremost. He’s able to pressure the ball, guard multiple positions, create turnovers, and disrupt the timing of the other team’s offense,” Hardy said.

With the Jazz’s multitude of offensive-oriented guards, Dunn’s defense stands out. It’s that skill that, Hardy says, may even turn him into a starter during the 2023-24 season — as soon as opening day.

“I think there are opportunities for us to change the (starting) lineup at certain times, depending on who we’re playing, Hardy said. “We’re always looking at it like we’re trying to maximize 48 minutes, but yes, Kris is somebody who could be in that slot. He could potentially be there the opening night of the season, he could not.”

Contract situation

Yet, it’s not even at this point guaranteed that Dunn will be on the roster on opening day. That’s because Dunn, when he signed his contract with the Jazz last season, added on an additional non-guaranteed season for 2023-24. The $2.5 million he is slated to earn this year only becomes guaranteed if the Jazz choose to keep him beyond Oct. 23, two days before the Jazz’s first regular season game with the Sacramento Kings.

“I don’t really think about it,” Dunn said about the impending date. “I just leave it to my agent and the front office.”

Given his play, it’s likely the Jazz will choose to pay that relatively inexpensive amount. For one, if they were to waive him, a team would likely claim him off waivers immediately, thanks to his solid play so far. Secondly, if Dunn continues to play at this level, he’d not only have value to the Jazz, but many other teams in the league in the trade market, should the team pivot in that direction.

That being said, it would make sense for the Jazz to extend Dunn’s contract for the long term — if they could. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement prohibits the Jazz from extending or renegotiating Dunn’s contract. Only contracts of three seasons or longer can be extended, only contracts of at least four seasons can be renegotiated. Dunn’s contract only lasted two seasons: last year and this year.

That means that Dunn will be an unrestricted free agent this upcoming summer — there’s no way for the Jazz to take advantage of finding him first other than convincing Dunn to sign on the bottom line in what could be a competitive market.

Confidence on and off the court

Still, Dunn’s very confident that it will all work out In the long term. After all, he’s always been confident about everything.

For example, Dunn, more than anybody I’ve ever met, is always greeting people. On his way out onto the court, he’ll say hello to his teammates, ball boys, security staff, you name it. On the way out of the locker room, he’ll go around to every player remaining, dapping them up and using his preferred nickname for them. In general, there’s a good rule of thumb: If you’re a person he knows, he’ll say hello.

So I asked him: “Have you always been good about greeting people, or is that something that you’ve developed as you’ve gotten older and more comfortable in the league?”

But Dunn misunderstood my question. What Dunn thought I said wasn’t “greeting people,” but “reading people.” Dunn, because he has infinite confidence, thinks he’s great at that, too.

“Maybe because I’m a Pisces,” Dunn said. “One of my best traits is reading people. Like, I can read somebody within five seconds — the way you walk, the way you talk.”

I sheepishly explained the question mix-up, but Dunn wasn’t fazed at all. “I just like to spread positivity, right? I think the energy gravitates. If somebody’s cheering you on and you feel it, you feel excited, it gravitates to you. So I try to just come in and be who I am — and that’s try to be happy each and every day. I stay positive and I try to shed light on others.”

His head coach, Hardy, is happy to have him around.

“You’ll see him run by the bench and he’ll still chirp at me every now and then after a basket he scores, which I fully encourage,” Hardy said. “I don’t ever want to water down anybody’s personality, especially when they’re doing things that contribute to winning.”

Even if that means being on the end of some trash talk.

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