Despite Taxing Year, Providence's Kris Dunn Doesn't Regret Making NBA Wait

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 7, 2016

PROVIDENCE, RI - JANUARY 05:  Kris Dunn #3 of the Providence Friars drybbles up court during a college basketball game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at Dunkin' Donuts Center on January 5, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  The Golden Eagles won 65-64.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Shortly after ordering a dozen sweet chile wings at Snookers, a popular sports bar near the Providence campus, Kris Dunn raised his hand and summoned his waitress.

"Can we change seats?" the Friars point guard asked.

A pair of fans had spotted Dunn as he and a friend were escorted to a nearby booth. With angst in the community still high after a loss to Big East pushover DePaul a few days earlier, the urge to needle the future NBA lottery pick was impossible to resist.

"Same ol' Providence!" one of the men said to his buddy. "They're not going to amount to anything."

As the conversation continued, their voices grew louder.

"They'll be one-and-done in the tournament—if they even make it."

"They're going to let everyone down again."

"So overrated."

"It's like they wanted me to hear them," Dunn said as he rehashed the incident three weeks later.

"They did it on purpose. They knew I was sitting there. They kept looking at me."

Dunn moved to a new table and was flabbergasted about 30 minutes later when one of the hecklers approached and asked to pose with him for a picture. Initially, Dunn declined.

Jan 24, 2016; Villanova, PA, USA; Providence Friars guard Kris Dunn (3) reacts to a score against the Villanova Wildcats during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Providence Friars won 82-76 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

"But the guy got all mad," he said, "so I just stood up and did it."

Asked how he maintained his composure, Dunn chuckles and shrugs his shoulders.

"At this point," he said, "I'm used to that kind of stuff."

In so many ways, the scenario encapsulates Dunn's life since last April, when he stunned the college basketball world by announcing he'd return for his junior year instead of becoming an instant millionaire in the NBA draft.

The risk, it appears, will pay off.

Considered a mid-first-rounder a year ago, Dunn—who will turn pro after this season—is now projected as the No. 5 pick in the June 23 draft by DraftExpress. He's cut down on his turnovers, increased his scoring average and now has Providence on the cusp of earning a third straight NCAA tournament berth for the first time in 42 years.

Still, talk to Dunn and those around him long enough, and it's clear the narrative of the past 10 months is bittersweet. Sure, his on-court improvement and elevated draft stock are enough to deem his final college season a success, but that doesn't mean it's been easy.

"Oh, man, not at all," Dunn said after a late-February practice. "It's actually been really tough."

He paused.

Dec 21, 2015; Amherst, MA, USA; Providence Friars guard Kris Dunn (3) takes the floor prior to a game against the Massachusetts Minutemen at William D. Mullins Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

"Overwhelming is a good word for it," Dunn said. "At times, I've been overwhelmed. It's definitely not how I thought it would be."

Practice was underway on a Monday afternoon at Providence, but Kris Dunn wasn't dressed in his shorts and workout jersey. Instead, the 6'4" guard leaned against the scorer's table near the sideline, wearing black jeans with a hoodie draped over his head.

Head coach Ed Cooley halted an offensive drill with his whistle, barked instructions at his players and then turned toward Dunn.

"You need to be listening to this, Kris," Cooley yelled. He glared at Dunn and shook his head. "It's been five days, man. Five long days."

Frustrated as he was that Dunn hadn't practiced in nearly a week, Cooley admitted later that he understood. Two days after a loss at Xavier on Wednesday, Feb. 17, Dunn awoke from a nap with cold sweats and an upset stomach. A visit with the team physician later that afternoon revealed that he had a 104-degree fever.

Dunn returned after a five-day layoff and practiced sparingly the following Tuesday—a day after Cooley's prodding—but he still wasn't himself throughout the rest of the week, scoring just eight points in a loss at Seton Hall and a season-low two in a win over DePaul, a game he didn't even start.

After a loss to Xavier, Dunn fell ill and the Friars struggled to regain the momentum that saw them win 18 of their first 22 games.
After a loss to Xavier, Dunn fell ill and the Friars struggled to regain the momentum that saw them win 18 of their first 22 games.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Even though all signs pointed toward the flu, there were some who wondered if other factors were affecting Dunn.

"I'm worried he may be worn down," Providence associate head coach Andre LaFleur said. "Everyone is tired this time of the year, but Kris has so much more on his shoulders. He's the face of our program. It's a heavy load."

Heavier, perhaps, than Dunn anticipated.

Even though it intensified last April, when he announced he was bypassing the draft and returning to college, the pressure on Dunn actually started mounting more than a year ago.

It was then that Dunn recorded 27 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in a Jan. 29 win over DePaul, a triple-double that generated buzz not only in Providence and the Big East, but also in NBA circles.

Virtually every mock draft indicated the versatile Dunn—who ranked fifth in the nation in assists and fourth in steals—would be a top-20 selection.

"I swear," Dunn said, "after that DePaul game, everyone was like, 'Oh, he's definitely leaving after this year. He's going to be a lottery pick.'

"But even right then, I knew there was no way I was going to leave. I knew I had flaws in my game, and I wanted to fix those flaws. I was such a raw talent."

Dunn couldn't get Providence past Dayton in last year's NCAA tournament, but he solidified his first-round stock in the eyes of NBA personnel scouts.
Dunn couldn't get Providence past Dayton in last year's NCAA tournament, but he solidified his first-round stock in the eyes of NBA personnel scouts.Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Still, despite being green and nowhere close to his ceiling, Dunn had been branded a star. Flattering as the label may be, the expectations could be daunting. Especially for a kid such as Dunn. And especially in a place like Providence.

Just three years earlier, Dunn had been a high school star 56 miles away in his hometown of New London, Connecticut. Many of the friends he'd lost touch with after graduation resurfaced midway through his successful sophomore season. He'd get random calls for tickets and requests to borrow his car.

One high school friend even asked Dunn if he could lend him $5,000. Dunn laughed.

"I've never had $5,000 in my hand," he said. "I've never even seen $5,000.

"I'm the type of person who likes to make everyone happy, because I know what it's like to be treated bad. But a lot of people were trying to get close to me all of a sudden. Coach Cooley was like, 'You've got to keep your circle tight. It has to be small.' I started learning how to block people out."

Skeptical as he was of some folks, Dunn grew more and more appreciative of others.

He stopped and posed for pictures with random students on his way to class. Rather than clam up or change the subject when his barber brought up mock drafts, Dunn answered his questions. Dunn didn't alter his route when he noticed a flock of young fans "bum-rushing" him at the mall.

Instead he spent a half-hour signing autographs.

"There must've been 100 of them," he said. "It was awesome."

By the time the 2015-16 campaign began, Dunn had become such a big name and was so in demand that media relations director Arthur Parks said he had to decline five out of every six interview requests for the preseason All-American.

Each day leading up to the opener, Dunn began to realize more and more how heavily people were depending on him at Providence, which boasts just 3,843 students and no football team. The Friars have appeared in back-to-back NCAA tournaments, but they haven't won a game in the Big Dance since 1997.

"I want to fulfill so many wishes for these fans," Dunn said. "Basketball is the big thing here, and it's been a while since Providence had that spark to get everyone excited, the chance to be an elite team.

"It's a feeling where you're not just playing for yourself or your teammates. You're playing for the entire community."

The chore has been difficult.

As the only returnee who averaged more than 6.5 points per game the previous season, Dunn has been constantly attacked with double- and triple-teams. Luckily, forward Ben Bentil, a complementary piece last season, has blossomed into one of the country's most improved players, currently leading the Friars with 21.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. The rest of Providence's roster boasts decent talent, but no other game-changers or all-league-caliber performers.

"Think about all the stuff [Dunn]'s facing," Cooley said. "All the pressure both off the court and on it. The expectations, the media, the NBA stuff, the double-teams. Despite all of that, he's still expected to come out and perform."

For the most part, Dunn has done exactly that at a high level.

Dunn's scoring average has increased from 15.6 points per game last season to 16.3 this year. He's maintained his accuracy from long range—he shoots 35.1 percent from beyond the arc—despite hoisting more attempts this year. And Dunn's turnovers have decreased from 4.2 to 3.6 a night.

While dealing with more defensive pressure than he ever has at Providence, Dunn has struggled to find consistency with his shot this season.
While dealing with more defensive pressure than he ever has at Providence, Dunn has struggled to find consistency with his shot this season.Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Things took a turn for the worse in February, however, when Providence went just 2-5, with Dunn a non-factor in the Friars' final two contests of the month because of his illness. All of a sudden, a team that was ranked as high as No. 7 and touted wins over Villanova and Arizona found itself on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Dunn tried to stay away from social media—he deleted his Twitter account six months ago—but felt the tension around town.

"We beat Villanova (on Jan. 24) and everyone around here started saying how we were a Cinderella team and that we'd be in the Final Four," Dunn said. "That was really the talk around Providence. There were lots of smiles and hugs and kisses. But then we had that bad stretch and everyone went back to, 'Oh, they're just another Providence team.'"

Dunn also sensed something else. Not only were fans (like that guy at the restaurant) questioning the Friars, they were also questioning him.

"I'm sure people have thought, 'Is Kris really that good?'" Dunn said. "I can't complain, though. It's just part of it. This is why I came back, to help us do something great."

Multiple times during the three-hour lecture, John Seldon pounded his fist on the kitchen table.

It was April 2015, and Seldon—Dunn's father—didn't agree with his son's decision to return to Providence for another season.

As a guaranteed first-round NBA draft pick, Dunn was less than three months away from becoming a millionaire. Why risk injury and jeopardize your financial future, Seldon asked, all for one more year of college? Taking the money now wasn't just the best move. It was the smart one, he said. Even Cooley told Dunn that turning pro was the right decision.

But Dunn never wavered.

"I want to do more than just go to the NBA," Dunn told Bleacher Report last month. "I want to play in the NBA. I want to be prepared when I get there, instead of sitting at the end of the bench or going to the D-League. I needed more time to grow."

As a player.

After losing in the forst round of last year's NCAA Tournament, Dunn eschewed the advice of his coach and his father and returned to Providence this season in an effort to make his game more NBA-ready.
After losing in the forst round of last year's NCAA Tournament, Dunn eschewed the advice of his coach and his father and returned to Providence this season in an effort to make his game more NBA-ready.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

And also a person.

The only thing more remarkable than Dunn's improvement on the court at Providence are the strides he's made off of it—especially considering the adversity he faced long before blossoming into a basketball star.

As reported by national outlets such as ESPN.comSports Illustrated, CBS Sports and others, Dunn was nine years old and in the fourth grade when his mother, Pia, was sent to prison. Almost immediately, Dunn and his brother, John, who is five years older, stopped attending school and spent much of their days in the Alexandria, Virginia, streets, gambling on card games and using trick dice to hustle others out of money.

Dunn played friends one-on-one in basketball for $20—even when he didn't have the funds to back up the bet. He even stole food on occasion, all so he and his brother could survive alone in a two-bedroom apartment that often lacked electricity and air conditioning. Fearing Child Protective Services would hear about their living conditions and move them into foster care, knocks on the door were rarely answered.

"It was just us two, and nobody knew," Dunn told ESPN.com. "We wouldn't let it be known. We were fighters. Every day, we learned how to get what we want in order to survive."

Seldon—who had spent eight years searching for his children after Pia ran away with them when Kris was one—eventually caught wind of the situation, rescued his sons and moved them into the New London home he shares with his wife and their two daughters.

Under Seldon's guidance, Dunn became a high school basketball star, earned a diploma and, most important, earned a college scholarship.

Ken Jancef @kenjancef

Kris Dunn of @PCAthletics and his family at Senior Night... #GoFriars #pcmbb https://t.co/4XEa1zUPMZ

Still, when Dunn arrived at Providence in the fall of 2012, the emotional scars of his childhood were fresh.

Mentors took Dunn to a therapist, but he refused to open up about his feelings. Dunn was respectful of his coaches during games and cracked his teammates up with one-liners at practice, but when it came to his personal life, he was guarded and skeptical of others.

"When he got here," Cooley said, "he flat-out told me, 'The only person I trust is my dad.' I couldn't blame him. Why would he trust anyone?"

Over the next three-plus years, Cooley met with Dunn routinely in his office, often sharing intimate details about his own upbringing as a way to show a parallel between his life and that of his star player.

With his mother on welfare and struggling to raise nine children—his father was rarely around—Cooley was taken in by a friend's parents, living with the family until he graduated from high school. Rather than mope about his past, Cooley embraced his new opportunity and eventually flourished as a college athlete at Stonehill and then as a head coach at Fairfield and Providence, where he was hired in 2011.

The more time Dunn spent with Cooley, the more comfortable he became opening up.

Dunn and Providence coach Ed Cooley.
Dunn and Providence coach Ed Cooley.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The maturation process Dunn experienced during his early years at Providence paid dividends when it came to basketball, too.

Talent was never an issue for the 220-pound Dunn, who has long been praised for his defensive instincts, his ability to create in traffic and, more than anything, his elite athleticism.

"When you combine his burst with his size and speed, he's just so hard to stay in front of defensively," one NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "He can change speeds and alter his direction before you can blink."

The problems for Dunn early on were the same ones that plague countless first-year college players each season.

As a freshman, it wasn't uncommon for Dunn to throw up during a morning workout, because instead of a healthy breakfast, he ate Starburst on the way to the gym. Oftentimes, he was up at odd hours of the night playing video games, losing sleep and, thus, affecting his mood and energy.

Having never developed proper study habits in high school—"Back then the classes were more common-sense-type-stuff," he said—Dunn had to grow accustomed to spending multiple hours each night doing homework.

Back then, Dunn talked openly about how his favorite television show was SpongeBob SquarePants.

His coaches said his fun, joking manner occasionally helped lighten the mood during a tough practice. But they also longed for a more serious side.

Smooth as Dunn could be at times on the court, Cooley said he didn't value the ball. A highlight-reel basket on one possession was often ruined by a careless turnover on the next, and Dunn didn't yet grasp the benefits of an extra pass or the effect he could have by patting a teammate on the back after a key basket.

It has taken time, but Dunn has grown to understand his importance within the Friars' basketball ecosystem.
It has taken time, but Dunn has grown to understand his importance within the Friars' basketball ecosystem.Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Yes, Dunn was a good player with loads of potential. But Cooley wanted more. He wanted a leader.

It took two years, but by the time he reached his redshirt sophomore campaign in 2014-15, Dunn had developed into exactly that. And it's only enhanced since Dunn announced he was returning for one final season.

"I get goose bumps when I talk about Kris and how far he's come," Cooley said. "The Kris you see now is not the same person you'd have seen four years ago. He's grown up."

Indeed, talk to Dunn long enough, and it's clear he has a more well-rounded perspective, not only about his own life, but also the lives of those around him.

Shortly after the basketball coach from Dunn's former high school called to vent about his players lacking discipline, Dunn returned to his hometown and spoke to the team before practice.

"I understood exactly what was going on," Dunn said. "They don't mean to act bad, but some of them are going through so much. Some may be having issues at home that are affecting them. That stuff messes with you emotionally. I've been through it."

Dunn also hopes he can influence members of his own family. He said one of the main reasons he returned to Providence was so his stepsisters, Ashley and Ariana, could see him walk across the stage in a cap and gown this spring when he earns a degree.

Dunn knows how important a diploma could be for him, too. Even though he's confident he'll succeed in the NBA, Dunn is smart enough to know a freak injury could end his career in an instant.

"I don't want to be one of those guys who, if basketball stops, I'm lost in the world," Dunn said. "I couldn't live with myself if that happened. I can't go all the way back under. If basketball stops, I need something to fall back on to keep me level."

Dunn could envision himself being a guidance counselor or math instructor someday—but he's not spending much time pondering his distant future.

Instead, his focus is on helping Providence regain the swagger it lost during that brutal stretch in February. Doing so will be vital if the Friars hope to advance in the NCAA tournament. For Providence to even win a single game, Dunn knows he needs to be at his best.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13:  Kris Dunn #3 of the Providence Friars drives to the basket over during a semi-final game of the Big East basketball tournament against the Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden on March 13, 2015 in New York City.  The Wildc
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

"Kris, obviously, will go down as one of the best players to ever come through here," Cooley said. "But what will be his legacy? What will be his lasting memory? We'll find out in a few weeks."

No matter how things unfold, Dunn said he'll always deem his time at Providence—and, specifically, his final season—as a success.

Last month, during a weekend visit to his father's house in New London, Dunn spent time gazing at a collage of nearly 200 pictures on the family's living room wall. Along with photos from his athletic career, there were shots of Dunn with his mother, who is now deceased, during those rough childhood days in Virginia.

Another was a family photo taken shortly after Seldon rescued his sons and moved them to New London. Dunn said his father had an energy in that picture, a noticeable glow that wasn't present in the others.

"He had his boys back," Dunn said.

The longer he stared at the wall, the more sentimental Dunn became.

"It was a breakdown of our lives," Dunn said. "It's crazy what we went through to get here, all that we had to experience to turn out like this. It made me appreciate where I am now so much more. Even when it gets hard, how can there be any bad vibes, any negative energy?"

Dunn paused.

"I'm living one dream," he said, "and about to start another."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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