Kris Dunn is the guy you hate playing against, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said, but the guy you love when he’s on your side.
Known for his fierceness on defense, Dunn, now with the Hawks after three seasons with the Bulls, described his intensity and trash-talking on the court like so:
“I play ball like I play at the park. I don’t mean no harm by it, not at all, it’s just how I play basketball. If anything, I’m trying to motivate my team, get my team’s energy up, and I want us to play at a high level. I want us to play hard, I want us to play gritty.”
In an action-packed free agency that drastically revamped the roster, Dunn, 26, represents the Hawks’ signature defensive signing. The Hawks were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA last season (giving up the most points per game at 119.7), and the addition of Dunn should make them more formidable on that end of the floor.
Last season with Chicago, Dunn averaged 2.0 steals per game, the second-most in the NBA. He narrowly missed out on the All-Defensive team and finished with a defensive real plus-minus of 3.01, second among all guards and 14th in the league. With his length, aggression and stifling on-ball defense, he tends to make life incredibly difficult for opposing ballhandlers.
He and Trae Young have gotten into it before, with Young controversially getting ejected after receiving a second technical foul for looking at Dunn after sinking a shot in the Hawks’ win in Chicago in March of Young’s rookie season.
With the Hawks, other players already look to Dunn as the team’s go-to guy on defense when a difficult matchup arises, per Pierce.
“You hate him when they’re on the other team; you can’t stand ‘em,” Pierce said. “You love ‘em when they’re on your team, because you know you’re going to get that dog fight, you know you’re going to get that competitiveness. You know he’s going to take the challenge the way you think the challenge should be taken and he’s that guy.
“I think more importantly, our guys think he’s that guy. So there’s a tremendous amount of buy-in when I say, ‘Hey, Kris, you’ve got him.’ Our guys are saying, ‘Put Kris on him.’ That’s a statement in and of itself.”
As far as Dunn’s role on a deep Hawks team, he gives them an option in the backcourt when they need his defensive prowess or a particular guy is giving them trouble. Pierce did mention that Dunn is used to locking in on one player he usually matches up with throughout the game as opposed to switching, which is a skill he can continue to develop.
“I don’t think it’s a possession that we’re looking at, I think it’s the entirety of a game, and so I brought that up as a point to say he does a tremendous job when he can lock in on someone,” Pierce said.
“One of the areas I think we can help him grow is being able to be a little more versatile defensively as well. We have to be versatile, and we have to be great at locking in on guys as well, so he brings that component to us. We want to see if we can add to his skill set and his defensive mindset, and one of the areas is being able to switch effectively and still be effective.”
Over his four-year career, Dunn has averaged 8.3 points, 4.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.55 steals in 24.9 minutes per game. He missed time with a right MCL injury last season and ended up playing in only 51 games, starting 32. The Hawks have listed him with a “cartilage disruption” in his right knee, and he said his knee is making good progress, though he still can’t practice with contact.
On his new team, Dunn wants to invigorate the Hawks’ defense and help it reach its potential.
Although the Hawks brought in several players who can boost the offense, including Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, teams often don’t win in the long run without the ability to get clutch stops, particularly in the postseason, which the Hawks hope to reach in the coming season. That was something they were missing last year, tending to instead try and outscore the opposition.
“Just bringing the energy, bringing that dog mentality, basically what I did last year with the Bulls, just bring it over here,” Dunn said. “I wouldn’t say ‘teach’ but just bring it over and just bring everybody to a whole new level and a whole new standard, and I think we’ve got a couple great defenders already. I think they just need the motivation and someone out there to also help them and push them to be where they can be.”
Dunn was an unrestricted free agent, and the Hawks scooped him up on a two-year, $10 million deal (player option on the second year). General manager Travis Schlenk said he felt lucky to have been able to acquire him when they did.
Although Dunn’s not known for his offense, he did shoot 35.4% from 3-point range in the 2018-19 season (that took a step back last season at 25.9%). Defense will always be his backbone, but he wants to improve his shooting this year, too.
“If I could get that to a point where teams have to respect (my 3-point shot), it’s just going to open up so much of my game,” Dunn said. “I feel like I can play-make, I feel like I can get guys involved. At the same time, I’m going to hang my hat on defense, because that’s what the team needs me to do, that’s my role, and that’s what I have to do at a high level.”
As far as team defense, the Hawks will have to be on the same page and match Dunn’s intensity, Pierce said. They’re also counting on Clint Capela to anchor the defense and Rajon Rondo to give them a competitive edge from a cerebral and analytics perspective. But Dunn certainly puts the Hawks in a better position on defense, and they’re confident in what he brings.
“There’s not a guy in this league I’m afraid to put him on,” Pierce said.