"Uphill, uphill, uphill," Kris Dunn says to a swath of the reporters at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. He's talking about his life. The recent Providence graduate and the premier point-guard prospect of this upcoming NBA Draft class has lived through more than anyone his age should. Largely raised by his slightly older brother, with a father out of the picture and a mother stuck in a revolving door between the streets and various jails—"Everything she did was for us," Dunn says—Dunn has faced adversity that far overshadows anything found on a basketball court. For many months-long stretches as a pre-teen, Dunn and his brother would have to lie to teachers and parents about their circumstances, so they wouldn't be treated like orphans and separated. "We became men very early in life," he says.
Stuff like this might have nothing to do with basketball, strictly speaking. Still, it's tough to separate Dunn's fight through life with his success at the game that will soon make him a millionaire. Like Derrick Rose before him, Dunn's speedy, hyper-coordinated sorties up and down the floor seem somehow to upend a universe of odds stacked against him; he's a folk hero at Providence, and it's easy to imagine that he will be again wherever he winds up.
We likely won't have to wait long to find out where that will be. Dunn improved his game and his draft stock in each of his four years with the Friars, and as both a world-class playmaker and a Character Guy, he's as close to a franchise cornerstone out of the box as any player in the draft. He's expected to be a top-five pick.
"No, this wasn't the goal," Dunn replies, when asked if his long stay in the NCAA was forged in order to increase his odds of hitting pay dirt on draft night. "The goal was to graduate. Where I come from—New London, Connecticut—there's not a lot of people who graduate college, and I want to be a good role model for New London, but mainly for my family, like my two nieces who are entering high school soon."
Dunn talked about New London and his complicated family life more than a few times during his media minutes at the combine, with both a survivor's self-possession and some stubborn pride. He has answered these questions before.
The next questions he'll need to answer have to do with his body. Dunn had shoulder problems before and during college, and they cost him his entire sophomore season at Providence. Dunn has largely dispelled doubts about his health by playing two fabulous seasons in a row, but his handlers have begun to harness the relative mystery surrounding the state of his shoulder as leverage against NBA front offices.
Adrian Wojnarowski intimated that Dunn's medical reports are being released to teams with careful, strategic selectivity—the teams that know the most about Dunn's shoulder are the ones he most wants to play for next year. For all the emotion in Dunn's game and backstory, basketball is now the business he's in, and the people around him know it well enough to manage him as an asset.
He's a valuable one. Scouts see much more in Dunn than just off-court humility and mettle. He has a distinct, human presence on the court, too, leading by nature, using his tenacity to affect plays in unpredictable ways, and playing a that's highly effective and aesthetically thrilling. This may be most true on defense, where Dunn specializes in running down passes and layups in a way that recalls John Wall, and not just because Dunn himself brings up Wall as an aspirational parallel.
"I like to get after people," he says, by way of explaining his defensive ethos. "I like to get under peoples' skin."
It shows, if not always to his advantage. Dunn is bulky and long for his position; in college he often made up for lapses in defensive discipline and focus with sheer physicality. On offense, he has a sudden acceleration and instinct toward the rim that embarrassed many an amateur during his NCAA career.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the many teams considering Dunn, and it's tantalizing to imagine how his skills might fit into defensive auteur Tom Thibodeau's system. Minnesota has the fifth pick in June's draft, and the match between player and coach seems perfect in many ways. "I liked their interview," Dunn says. "It was a great vibe. They like who I am as a person. I want to know everything I can from Thibs about defense. I was trying to figure out everything I could from him, picking his brain."
The Chicago Bulls were the other half of Thibodeau's acrimonious breakup last off-season, and they're another team with an eye on Dunn. The Bulls' front office seemingly has begun to look at a future without the aforementioned Rose, and reports suggest that they're trying to trade up from their No. 14 position to grab Dunn. Given the timidity of the Bulls front office with regard to trades, it's hard to put much stock in this, but it's telling that Dunn is the fantasy cornerstone for their plan to become an Eastern Conference contender again. Dunn's self-professed blue-collar ethic was a familiar trait of the organization when it was operating at an admirable grind-it-out hum under Thibodeau for five years; Dunn, both as a player and as a personality, would be a compelling potential centerpiece for the team's attempt at a cultural reboot.
"I would have no problem playing under Derrick Rose, an MVP player," Dunn says, when asked about the rumors. "I want to learn how he kept bouncing back after all the injuries, and how he became that MVP player, that guy that everyone was in love with."
Dunn is enough of a gentleman to feign that he's being pursued to play behind or alongside Rose, as opposed to acknowledging the truth: that he's being looked at for the task of supplanting him. This is the other side of Dunn's dream, which is now so close to reality. He's going to have to take someone's job, wherever he ends up. His story is inspiring, but business is business.