Why All-American Kris Dunn passed on NBA to return to Providence

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The most talented all-around player in college basketball just might be one of the funniest as well.

Big talent and big personality, those are the traits we seek most in our athletes. Providence junior Kris Dunn is set to perform under the most pressure and attention he’s ever had, maybe ever will have, and he’ll probably be busting up his teammates as frequently as he’ll break down defenses.

“Dunn is goofy as s—,” Friars coach Ed Cooley says. “Very funny. Likes to dance, enjoys rapping. Really, really silly. Shows a human side of himself that way.”

You’ve just never seen that side of him. His personality penchant for jocosity has come to a point where Cooley has told him not to be too jokey in the locker room. Leadership role and all that.

Dunn, whose antics on the team bus and around the facility have helped uplift Providence to a Big East resurgence, understands the balance. But at the moment, we’re not in the locker room or the practice floor. It’s a couple of hours before one of the team’s first practices in what should be Dunn’s last season as an amateur player. He’s dressed in an all-black Friars jumpsuit, relaxing at a campus cafeteria.

And he’s going on and on about how he loves … “Friends”? Kris Dunn identifies with Chandler Bing.

“‘Friends’ is hysterical. Ross and Chandler make that show unbelievable,” he says. “Chandler is so sarcastic that it’s through the roof. Ross is so sensitive about things that it makes it funny. You can have a bad day and watch ‘Friends’ and be so relaxed. You forget about your day.”

He also loves the “The Office” and “How I Met Your Mother.” Guy is a huge Dwight Schrute fan. But, Kris, your thoughts on the controversial HIMYM finale?

“It was terrible.”

He rolls off more of his Netflix favorites: “The League,” “Rules of Engagement,” “The Boondocks,” “Arrow,” “Nikita,” “Lost,” “The Following,” “The Walking Dead” and, of course, “Breaking Bad.”

Injuries over the course of Dunn’s career have allowed him to find the time to become a part-time personal TV critic. His boisterous makeup blends with a competitive edge that’s only been augmented as he’s gotten older. Golf, KanJam, cornhole, whatever the game, he wants to shut you down.

As he’s explaining his competitive streak, his eyes flatten.

“Right now, telling you. My 2K skills: It’s UNBEARABLE,” Dunn says as he knocks his knuckles against the table. “People say they’re good at 2K. OK. Next year, when I get to the NBA, I’m gonna go to the (NBA 2K) people and tell them, ‘You need people like me. Because I know the game.'”

He legitimately wants to help design and tweak video games. The vexing thing about Dunn is how his sense of humility smashes up against his gentle arrogance when it comes to the simpler pleasures. In terms of NBA 2K, nobody on Providence’s team will even play him anymore. Dunn claims to have forced fellow college hoops stars Isaiah Taylor and Tyrone Wallace into quitting halfway through their games against him while at LeBron James’ Nike camp this past summer.

“I 21’d him four times,” Dunn says of Wallace (who will star at Cal this season).

House rule meaning: Once you’re down by 21, it’s done. Fork over the controller.

“Georges Niang? Bye. I’m saying blackjack,” Dunn says as he soft-claps. “Let’s not get it twisted. I know it’s a video game. If we played three games, best out of three, I can almost guarantee you a sweep.”

This is playful confidence. It’s exactly the kind of gusto that has cast Kris Dunn into an unbelievable all-around college player.

But the question still lingers: Why the hell is he even playing college basketball?

***

It’s quite possible Dunn’s decision to bypass last June’s NBA Draft was an unprecedented choice for a player of his standard. First, consider how rare it is, over the past 25 years, for a guy considered to be a lottery pick to not leave school. Then factor in Dunn’s injury history. He’s already had two major shoulder injuries. He’s endured missed time — nearly two seasons’ worth — and was still highly coveted.

To be lottery pick-good, miss more than half your college career to injuries, then still be slotted into the top 15 of the NBA Draft … and nonetheless eagerly opt to return to school? We might not see a case like this happen in college basketball again for decades.

The modern context of sports and society encourages young men into the pros and get money as quickly as possible. Yet here’s a player who’s taken on two big setbacks to his personal health, injuries that could hinder his earning potential, and he’s going to play for free again this season.

Dunn said the only time he checked a mock draft ranking on any website was in January. He swears going to the NBA never seriously crossed his mind. But even into early mid-April, many presumed he was gone. Threat of another injury didn’t hesitate his choice.

“There was never a time where I thought, Man, I’m leaving,” he said.

Dunn’s stat line last season was brawny: 15.2 points, 7.5 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. Cooley was fighting a battle with himself. He says now he knew Dunn was never leaving for the NBA prior to 2016. But he still told him to leave.

“He wants to be a role model for men and women who have opportunities to go earn fast money, but graduating is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cooley said.

A lot of agents tried to call the coach. He shrugged them off, said they could reach out to Dunn’s father if they were going to try to sway the kid.

“I told them, ‘I don’t respect your business because I think it is as slimy as it gets,'” said Cooley, “but at the same time, it’s about Kris.”

Dunn thinks his triple-double performance against DePaul last season, on Jan. 29, was when he was certain he had NBA talent and ability to leave school — if he wanted — after the season. Yet, no. When it comes to making these decisions, a lot of unaffiliated parties still can’t help but wonder: Why?

Here. This is an uninterrupted quote from Dunn, when asked to detail the particulars of his surprising decision to come back.

“I know I could’ve had a good chance at being a lottery pick, but I didn’t know the game as well. I’m going to be going to the NBA, 21 years old, and really only played one year of college basketball. I have to not only work on my game, but off the court I’ve got to work on my maturity. For instance, say if I get picked to the Clippers right now. I’m talking to a dude like Paul Pierce? He don’t want to hear jokes. He’s got a family. He wants to worry about staying healthy. I want to learn how to be a professional. It’s almost strictly business there. I felt I needed to be a college player and a college person for one more year. Friends and family and fans, they only see the good on the court. I know, personally, the things I have to work on. I felt I need another year to develop those skills. I don’t want to go to the NBA and not be ready. There’s a lot of guys who go there, and their skills aren’t developed. Some players don’t like to admit it, but I can see my flaws.”

Once the season was over, Dunn took the 55-minute drive home to New London, Conn., a few times to see his family. Dad started getting ideas about the NBA, looking into potential agents, where his son could be picked. Dunn basically dodged the subject every time. He’d convince himself by making sure he wasn’t exactly around the house when he thought his dad would be home and wanting to talk draft decision.

But turns out his father, John Seldon, was completely fine with it.

“I’m blessed to have a father like my dad. I kid you not, we are the same people,” Dunn says while wrapping his index and middle fingers together. “How we talk, walk, read people, our street smarts and common sense. I learned from my dad how to be goofy and then turn that switch. He taught me — I’ve always been mean [in games] — but to stay that way whole game. I won’t show nobody no fear, and if you show me some sign of fear, that’s where I have to take it.”

Dunn aspires to channel Russell Westbrook’s never-not-pissed-off demeanor. He’s come around to the process. It’s based in part by the fracture in his family. Dunn is where he is now, literally, because of his father. Seldon took two 13-hour roundtrips from New London, Conn., down to Alexandria, Va., more than a decade ago. Kris was 9. His mother was behind bars.

Seldon legally brought him to the northeast shore of Connecticut. His life was forever changed, but a safer home situation going forward would still lead to additional emotional damage down the road.

As Dunn rehabbed his shoulder for a second time, his mother died. These psychological scars are not the only things that allow funny Dunn to channel strength and aggression on the court, but they are enduring catalysts. And this has helped him be a stronger player and better person. He’s now about the substance more than the flash. He compares it to how he approaches music.

“People listen to the beats; I want to listen to the lyrics,” Dunn said. “I want to hear their pain. I want to relate.”

***

The exceptional aspect to Kris Dunn is this: basketball might not be his best sport. And had he not gone through his middle and high school years in Connecticut’s biting winters — if John Seldon does not locate his sons and remove them from Virginia — there’s a good chance he would’ve stayed on with his first love. And he certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near Providence right now. The only reason Dunn gave up football while playing for a Connecticut powerhouse in New London was due to the cold. Not the violence, not the threat of injury.

“I’m fine with all that,” Dunn said. “I kid you not, if I had stayed the course, I would play in the NFL.”

This might not be delusion. Plenty who saw him star at safety and wideout would attest similarly. Cooley said Dunn’s 40 time is at 4.4. Plus, the evidence in his football skill still exists on the basketball floor. Dunn is an elite defender, perhaps the best on-ball watchdog in the game. Ask him to boil down his purest desire and satisfaction in competition, and this is it: “I like shutting a person down. That gets me going. That gets me fired up.”

He wants to 21 you.

This ties into another angle that made Dunn’s decision to come back even more surprising: Providence is likely not an NCAA Tournament team this season if Dunn’s at an NBA training camp right now. With him, there is no guarantee they get there either. Cooley expects league coaches to pick his team near the bottom of the conference.

This doesn’t deter Dunn one bit. It’s pretty outstanding, and some would say stupid. But this group can, and will, run. The best point guard in the country is going to be streaking up the floor dozens of times per game, and the beneficial irony here is the current roster sets up to showcase Dunn’s skillset in the best possible way. Cooley said this will be the the best shooting team he’s coached at PC, too.

Ed Cooley has felt a tight bond with Dunn from day one. (USATSI)

“They don’t think we’re going to be that good, that it’s just on me on the team,” Dunn said. “We have young group. I wouldn’t say I’m so good I can make the team better by myself. For instance, Kyrie Irving. When it was just him on the Cavs, he couldn’t make them win. I see the pieces we have, I see the coaching staff, and how we’re going to play. It’s going to jumble teams.”

Dunn’s lockdown ability (a major reason why he’s arguably the best player in college hoops is tied to his undeniable on-ball defensive aptitude) applies to football as much as it does basketball. Dunn does admit there’s no shot he’d be so highly regarded now if Cooley, and former PC players like Bryce Cotton, didn’t breed him to truly love basketball. Wasn’t always that way.

Cotton, who grew into an all-league player under Cooley, served as Dunn’s model.

“It put more influence to me. To work hard, watch yourself, do what he did off the court, the little things,” Dunn said. “I now watch high school players, I watch college players. I watch Melo Trimble, Isaiah Taylor, Ben Simmons. I want to see them.”

Dunn said there was a time on a team trip, he was sharing a room with Cotton, and he’d be watching tape on his teammate. Cotton, sitting six feet away on the other bed, wouldn’t even know it.

“In high school, I was just playing the game,” Dunn said of hoops. “It wasn’t like the actual passion was there, that every day I wanted to get better, play harder.”

Dunn was a five-star prospect in spite of his casual enjoyment on the court. He arrived at Providence as a McDonald’s All-American who felt he was going to “tear up the scene” practically immediately. Part of this was because Cooley, who was the first coach to offer Dunn a scholarship — back when Cooley was coaching at Fairfield — essentially vowed in blood to Dunn that he would start no matter what.

And he did. Even after Dunn’s right shoulder kept popping out (which ultimately led to surgery) he was on the floor at tip-off. The first shoulder injury got so bad Dunn couldn’t even make a move to stretch his arm laterally without the shoulder dislodging from the socket. The labrum was torn.

“Once I had those two shoulder injuries, it kind of hit me: All right, now what am I going to do?”

The first shoulder issue originated in high school and hit an unbearable point a month into Dunn’s freshman season, in 2012-13. The next season, in an exhibition vs. Rollins College, a player dove for a ball and gave all his weight on Dunn’s arm and shoulder. The shoulder popped out and slid back in within a matter of seconds, but Dunn knew it again. He played four games to little satisfaction. Surgery was coming, and paired with the loss of his mother, it became the roughest patch of his life.

Two years in, two wasted seasons. He’d committed himself to basketball but the game was seemingly turning on him. When he knew his second year at PC was done, he cried.

“The way my dad has taught me in life how to be a man — him and my brother are the ones who really kept me going, to understand that things happen like this,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the worst pain he’s ever felt in his life came during that second rehab, when he had to balance a double-rubber-ended four-foot stick, twist it, rotate it, all with one arm, for 90 seconds straight. He embraces that pain now, says it’s led to him never feeling better, never feeling stronger than he does today. His decision to come back to school came with an obvious caveat: Providence would take out an insurance policy on his potential earnings. Cooley was insistent this be part of the plan.

Ed Cooley has always seen the plan for his most coveted recruit.

***

Growth can be identified in something simple. Like a bounce pass. When he got to campus, Dunn would bring his arm back, wind up, put english on the ball — then fool his teammate and watch as the pass dripped out of bounds.

“And he’d think it was a great pass,” Cooley said. “He’d look at me like, β€˜The f— you talking about, coach?’ Now, it’s, ‘Coach, you’re right.'”

While Dunn technically picked Providence over Louisville and UConn, he now freely admits it was always going to PC once Cooley got the job in 2011. Dunn said that move “made it sweeter,” since the first man to recruit him went at a major-conference school that happened to be less than an hour away from his family’s hometown.

Go back to the funny stuff, that sense of humor. Cooley has a playful cynicism to him that will cock your head sometimes. In coach and player, these two share a sense of humor rooted in the fact both grew up in single-parent homes that included times of struggle and poverty. Cooley worked from an early age for basic needs like clothes and food. Like Dunn, he said sports was his way out.

“I felt an absolute bond with him from day one of recruiting,” Cooley said.

The Providence coach was once a poor child, a kid who swept corners, worked at laundromats and began earning money for his family by the time he was 9. He did this on the south end of Providence, barely three miles from the office he keeps now.

“A lot of my humor and sarcasm comes from the negativity I’ve had in my life,” Cooley said. “A lot comes from seeing so much negative and being around it. I still work every day as if I’m the poorest kid in the room. My values, my ethos, that I hope resonates within our program.”

Because the two share so much in common, and because Dunn has always embraced Cooley’s no-BS approach, Dunn’s been more than just a could-have-been five-star talent who did a drive-by college experience and bailed after injury. Dunn’s place in Providence lore is already secure, and the season ahead should be his defining one. He is a totally different player now from what he was even 40 games ago. Twenty games ago.

Cooley cut some of his career cloth at Boston College. He recruited and coached Sean Williams and Troy Bell — two top-20 NBA picks. Cooley said they aren’t even in the “same breath” as Dunn.

“Now he sees progressions, whereas before it was natural talent,” Cooley said. “Now it’s reads, feel. He is stronger, more confident. He has a sense of belonging. He’s shooting the ball at a much higher clip. He has a lot more knowledge. He is coming out of his comfort zone having to do that.”

Dunn, who is somewhere between 6-foot-3 and 6-4, is now at 210 pounds. He had the third surgery of his life this offseason — on a bursa sac that grew to unreasonable proportions. Dunn now plays with an arm sleeve that hides the scar.

“He’s able to read and react quicker than most people,” Cooley said. “He can anticipate. He’s almost like a play and a half ahead of the offense. He’s different than anyone I’ve ever coached.”

The funniest thing about Kris Dunn is he is this outstanding despite has only played one full year in college. Even more: He has only been fully healthy for one full season since he was 16. And he’s still this good, even though still believes he’s not. That’s the joke.

Kris Dunn had NBA opportunities, but he insists he wasn’t ready mentally or physically. (USATSI)

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