When the preseason comes around, there are stereotypical think pieces that all media outlets run. “Who makes the leap?” “How many games will they win?” “Where will (insert player’s name here) wind up in the rotational hierarchy?”
Rarely do such versions of the final question tackle an athlete closer to the waiver wire than meaningful minutes. Yet Kris Dunn of the Memphis Grizzlies finds himself the subject of such a query, and his specific situational - and that of those around him - are reason for interest to be piqued.
The backup point guard position behind Ja Morant moving forward will serve as an interesting window in to the mindset of the Memphis Grizzlies organization. Ja Morant is the unquestioned leader and superstar of the franchise, the foundation upon the future of the franchise will be built upon. As the years grind on, and Morant reaches his prime, the need for a point guard that can play 18-20 minutes a game either to spell him or to play along side him will diminish. That time may already be here - Tyus Jones, the current Grizzlies back-up, played a minimal role in the team’s Play-In Tournament success and NBA Playoff series.
Barring injury that will only continue to grow more pronounced. And with Tyus entering the final year of his contract - one where he is making $7.5 million and is probably due a raise given his high level of play - there is reason to question whether or not Jones is longed for this Grizzlies world.
Enter Kris Dunn?
Maybe...but he’s going to have to earn it.
The 5th overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, Dunn has had an uneven NBA career. He is coming off of his least consequential season as a professional, appearing in just four games as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. He contributed very little both in terms of playing time (45 minutes in 4 games) and scoring (5 points!!!) before being part of a trade to the Boston Celtics this past August. Then, last month, the Grizzlies brought Dunn to Memphis along with Carsen Edwards in exchange for Juancho Hernangomez (who the Grizzlies got from a previous deal) and then proceeded to waive Edwards before training camp, making Dunn the priority to at least get a preseason in Memphis.
Why then, assuming Dunn makes the final cut entering the regular season (Shaq Buchanan and Sean McDermott seem longed for an eventual cut-and-Memphis Hustle signing), would the Grizzlies want an extended look at Dunn?
Memphis has had reported interest in Dunn before. And this was while Ja Morant was very much in their crosshairs. So Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman and company clearly like something about Dunn’s game. And he has shown flashes of NBA success, especially as a defensive guard. In his best NBA season - the 2019-2020 year with the Bulls - he posted an impressive 3.1 Defensive Box Plus/Minus per basketball-reference.com and displayed a real understanding of how to guard both on the ball as well as in passing lanes. He made this impact while not really being an offensive threat, especially from three (25.9% beyond the arc). Even though he did finish relatively well around the rim (53.5% on two point shots), it’s no accident he posted a 14.6% usage rate (his lowest aside from his rookie year) while playing so well defensively. He wasn’t asked to do much as a scorer, and stuck to what he did well.
Sound like any other new Grizzlies player?
On a smaller scale, the Dunn experiment harkens to a similar philosophy about Steven Adams’ potential role on the Grizzlies roster. If given the opportunity, he could potentially be a defensive stopper in select situations (or perhaps more) and not necessarily be an offensive contributor, but not a liability either. Memphis likely is looking at Dunn in a comparable manner to how they see Ziaire Williams - they’ve seen Dunn do what they want him to do. Who cares it wasn’t as successful elsewhere? They’re in Memphis now, and they believe they can develop them to where they need them to be.
And if they’re right about Dunn? He will almost certainly be cheaper to retain in free agency than Tyus Jones and could defend nicely while Ja is getting rest. Or Dunn’s success could mean Tyus’ departure via a trade closer to the trade deadline.
To jump to that conclusion would be a mistake. Jones has earned the likely increase in salary that is due to him, and perhaps even a starting role depending on which squad is his next one (assuming it’s not Memphis - which it still could be in theory). Tyus’ steady hand has benefitted the Grizzlies more often than not since he arrived, and it feels sort of silly to talk about parting with Jones for a player that is inferior to him in roughly every way offensively. That doesn’t even take in to account the debate that Tyus is potentially the best backup point guard in Grizzlies history.
Is Kris Dunn really going to be the one that makes Memphis pull the trigger on a trade between now and February to move on from such a contributor?
It feels unlikely right now...but the window is there. As is the chance for Kris to show he is worthy of such a position of the next great Grizzlies team.
Maybe Dunn isn’t the guy to replace Tyus. Memphis has three first young picks in the 2022 NBA Draft - selecting a back-up PG and having them play behind Ja on a rookie scale deal would fit with the soon-to-be cash strapped Grizzlies quite nicely. And Memphis may try to retain Tyus’ services - again, he’s been very good for the Grizzlies. But there is a reason Kris Dunn in here. He’s part of figuring out what the next step at point guard behind Ja Morant is. And he will get the opportunity to show what he can do.
The uncertainty lies in what he will actually be able to do with it when it comes.