The way Kris Dunn patrols passing lanes, embraces contact and collision, and blows up offensive sets, is reminiscent of a free safety in football.
Which — given that he started at that position his lone season playing football at New London High School in Connecticut — makes sense.
What doesn’t square with the image of Dunn, who often describes himself as a “dog,” is why he stopped playing the sport.
“I quit because it was cold,” Dunn said, smiling.
Then Dunn’s toughness and bravado returned.
“And because Coach wasn’t allowing me to play offense. I was a running back and loved to score touchdowns,” Dunn said. “But I was better at football than basketball. I know for a fact I could be in the NFL. I have the gifts for it.”
Dunn also has the gifts to be an elite NBA defender, which is why, as of Friday morning, he leads the league in total steals. As for his other claim, well, his starting quarterback that freshman season at New London High was Redskins tight end Jordan Reed. So at least someone made it to the NFL.
“My Dad, when I was a young kid, he built my body to be strong,” Dunn said. “I already had the physical tools and the instincts. I just took playing safety and carried it onto the basketball court.”
What’s it like to be guarded by Dunn?
“It’s physical,” Ryan Arcidiacono said.
“You feel it,” Coby White said.
“He talks a lot of smack,” Arcidiacono added.
“You feel hounded and pressured at all times,” White added. “His hands are active. He talks smack and plays with a lot of heart, a lot of energy. He’s grimy.”
Steals come in many forms in the NBA. There are loose balls, deflections, interceptions in passing lanes. Dunn gets his share of those.
Where Dunn also excels is more rare — stripping a player outright in the open court. And not just any player.
“Derrick Rose. Jimmy Butler. DeMar DeRozan last year. I got some names up there,” Dunn said. “If somebody’s handle is shaky, I’m on it. I take it.”
Dunn’s defensive ability springs from multiple sources. Listed at 6 feet, 3 inches, he possesses a wingspan of 6-foot-9. He devours film. And he relishes the role.
“That’s my niche — to guard. They want me to be a defensive player, which I love to do,” Dunn said. “I feel I do things just a little differently. I can pickpocket people. I can get in passing lanes. I can wall people up. I can guard point guards to power forwards. I even guarded some centers in the post before and held my own. I think I can do a little of everything defensively.”
But that straight steal in the open court is the most impactful, the most demoralizing to the opponent.
“I’ve been pickpocketed before. It’s definitely embarrassing,” Dunn said. “That person might feel like they want to try to come back at you. I’ve pickpocketed a lot of dudes in this league. I could make a highlight tape out of it.
“My reach helps me. I think my frame is strong up top. So I’m able to take the bump and still have my reach out there to take the ball. And I study people’s tendencies. If you see somebody pressure you 94 feet, they tend to do a move they don’t want to do. Once they do that move and it’s a little sloppy, it’s mine. I’m going to get it.”
Arcidiacono has been hounded by Dunn, dating to their shared Big East days.
“We played against each other seven or eight times,” Arcidiacono said of their Villanova-Providence battles. “He’s always had that tough mentality. He’s got a great frame on him with long arms. So you can’t really put that ball out there.
“I’m usually keeping that ball either between my legs or shielding it with my body. When he’s aggressive, you gotta make sure you keep that ball tight. And you can tell he played football when he was younger. He looks like a free safety and he gets physical. He talks a lot of smack, too, if he’s getting into you and his team is winning.”
Dunn confirmed this.
“I want that competitiveness. I want to go against the best guys. I want them to bring their all,” he said. “By me getting stops and talking smack, it’s going to make them want to bring it. I want to make it a war.”
When the Bulls reported for voluntary September workouts, Dunn provided White his welcome-to-the-NBA moment.
“We matched up almost every time. First couple games, he got at me. But I responded. You can ask him. We went at it,” White said. “But he helped prepare me for the league. There are only a small percentage of dudes who does what he do. I haven’t faced anyone yet this year who guarded me the way he guarded me.”
The Bulls are starting to make noise for Dunn to land on the All-Defense team. Dunn said he isn’t focused on that, just relishing his acceptance of guarding the opponents’ best player and trying to help the Bulls win.
But he knows his role.
“I’m a hound,” he said.
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