Dunn's quick improvement ranks as best news of Bulls' rebuilding season

 
 
Updated 4/18/2018 6:34 PM
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  • Chicago Bulls guard Kris Dunn, right, drives against San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in San Antonio.

    Chicago Bulls guard Kris Dunn, right, drives against San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in San Antonio. Associated Press

Second in a series

The stretch from Dec. 8 through Jan. 15 was when the Bulls' dream of landing the No. 1 overall draft pick died (probably).

But it was also the biggest reason to feel encouraged about the team's rebuild.

That's when the Bulls went through their 14-7 stretch. The return of Nikola Mirotic from facial fractures was a factor in the success, but the catalyst to the sudden improvement was clearly point guard Kris Dunn.

For the Bulls, this was a potential game-changer. When they made the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota last summer, Dunn was the third wheel, a possible bust coming off a disappointing rookie season with the Timberwolves.

Dunn, the No. 5 pick of the 2016 draft out of Providence, offered little reason for encouragement during a brief stop at the Las Vegas summer league, or in preseason before suffering a dislocated finger.

But once he was healthy, his performance began to improve and the Bulls turned the corner abruptly. Heading into the Dec. 8 game at Charlotte, when Mirotic made his season debut, the Bulls had a 3-20 record.

The next 21 games were quite surprising. For Dunn, it was a 20-game stretch, since he missed one with left knee tendinitis. During that time, Dunn averaged 15.0 points, 8.2 assists and 2.2 steals.

"This year, I definitely got my swagger back," Dunn said after a late-season game. "I went out there and played with confidence. I just tried to get the respect out of people, out of this league."

Dunn's best skill during this stretch was as a late-game finisher. There's still room to improve, but Dunn showed a knack for elusiveness. He could get into the lane, slide, spin or step back and create an open look at the basket. Dunn shot 46.6 percent from the field during fourth quarters in his 20-game run.

One of the most difficult things to do in the NBA is deliver crunchtime scoring and Dunn figured it out pretty quickly. That's why Dunn's development ranks as the most promising aspect of the Bulls' rebuilding season.

Defenses may adjust to Dunn's late-game offense next season, but he could also have a more confident Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine as passing partners. It's an intriguing scenario as the Bulls try to move into the improvement phase of their rebuild.

"What we saw from Kris Dunn this year was really encouraging," Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said after the season. "When he was healthy, he showed some real competitiveness. He has an opportunity to be one of the best defensive guards in the league."

Dunn can set the tone for the Bulls not only by pushing the pace on offense and pressuring the ball on defense, he also seems to play with the sort of passion a young team needs. His personal desire to succeed may be important as the Bulls set out to climb in the standings.

Dunn's successful stretch ended abruptly when he lost his balance on a breakaway dunk against Golden State on Jan. 17, hit the floor hard and was out a month with a concussion. He couldn't recreate the team success late in the season while management tried to increase the degree of difficult by changing lineups frequently.

"For me, (the season) was fun," Dunn said. "There were a lot of ups and downs, but for me as a second-year player, I see the improvement. I see the beauty in the struggle. There were some great moments this year. I think we've got to take the great moments and feed off it.

"We've got a lot of good pieces on this team, a lot of great talent. I can't wait (for next season). I know everybody else can't either."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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