For some NBA players, things don’t click right away. But a rookie struggling is no reason to fret; most rookies in the NBA are, to put it bluntly, kind of bad. Adjusting to the size, speed and strength of NBA veterans is a tall task, but franchises understand that and will usually show patience regarding rookies.
Sometimes things don’t click in year two either. Of course, teams want to see improvement in a player’s counting statistics and feel for the game, but growing pains are expected for sophomores too. If things haven’t clicked by year three though, alarms start to go off. When a player still looks lost on the floor – or is already on his second or third team – his future prospects start to look a little bleak.
That’s why the stories of Dennis Smith Jr. and Kris Dunn are massively impressive. Both are former top-10 picks who lasted less than two years with the teams that drafted them (the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves, respectively). They have each been waived, overlooked and altogether neglected. But now, Smith and Dunn have found homes with teams that expect legitimate production from them this season – and maybe beyond.
Smith signed a one-year, $2.5-million deal with the Brooklyn Nets this summer and he will serve as the team’s backup point guard, leading a second unit that will also include Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale – and has some serious potential for excitement on the defensive end. Dunn, meanwhile, just had his 2023-24 contract guaranteed by the Jazz and will almost certainly get regular minutes in Utah’s backcourt.
For DSJ, this is all happening about 18 months after he was cut from an actively tanking Portland Trail Blazers team when an elbow injury sidelined him for a few weeks. A midseason waiving by one of the league’s worst teams certainly feels like the metaphorical closing of a curtain that could signal the end of a player’s career.
Less than a month before the 2022-23 season, though, the Charlotte Hornets signed Smith to a one-year deal. The signing was mostly out of necessity, as the Hornets didn’t have a point guard to back up LaMelo Ball – but it was a deal nonetheless. If there was ever an example of “last, last chance,” this was it.
Back in his home state, Smith showed from day one that he wasn’t going to let this be the end of the line, becoming one of the best guard defenders in the entire league last season. He was in the 95th percentile for deflections per 36 minutes (via CraftedNBA), fifth in the entire league in steal rate (2.6%) and opposing teams averaged 10.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when
Smith was on the floor. That can’t all be attributed to him, of course, but that number in conjunction with other defensive stats show just how important Smith was to Charlotte’s (surprisingly) stout defense.
Smith showed flashes of defensive brilliance long before last season; here he is in 2018 locking up Paul George on a crucial crunch time possession.
HOLY DEFENSE DENNIS SMITH JR. pic.twitter.com/KEwMsLiQmT— Nick Angstadt (@NickVanExit) December 31, 2018
But his complete buy-in on that side of the ball in 2022-23 is what solidified Smith as someone who will more than likely stick around for years to come. Stops like this one against Stephen Curry became the norm for DSJ.
HORNETS beat the WARRIORS!— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 30, 2022
Dennis Smith Jr had 13/9/8 & forced OT with this bucket & defense on Steph Curry pic.twitter.com/2pCMn4eltC
Stifling defense wasn’t the only reason Smith earned another contract though; he posted the lowest turnover rate of his career and the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career too. His own shooting splits weren’t pretty (47.5% true shooting), but Smith protected the ball and made enough things happen for his teammates that calling him a defensive specialist feels like a disservice.
Dunn’s career has been just as big of a roller coaster as Smith’s. After just one season in Minnesota, he was essentially a throw-in piece of the Zach LaVine-to-Chicago-Bulls trade on draft night in 2017.
He spent three years with Chicago, showing some promise in his first season there. But his production declined over the next two seasons, and the Bulls let him walk after the 2020 season. Short stints in Memphis, Atlanta and Portland were discouraging too, and Dunn was teamless throughout most of the 2022-23 season. It looked like the end.
Shortly after an opportunity presented itself for Smith, Dunn was also given a chance to redeem himself. Dunn was playing in the G League when he got the call from the Jazz, who were basically just looking for a healthy body to provide backcourt depth after Collin Sexton went down with an injury.
Former No. 5 overall pick Kris Dunn is signing a 10-day contract with the Utah Jazz, sources tell me and @Tjonesonthenba. Dunn, a six-year NBA veteran, has played for Capital City Go-Go in G League this season.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 21, 2023
However, Dunn was much more than just a healthy body. He scored in double figures in his first seven games with Utah, while also averaging almost two steals per game. Overall, he posted counting stats of 13.2 points, 5.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 53.7% from the floor. His turnover rate – a big problem in all of his stops – was at a career low 11.0% too.
These weren’t just empty stats or “gimme” buckets either. Dunn was creating for both himself and others at a pretty high level in his 22 games with Utah. (A small sample size, but still impressive). Only 25% of his buckets were assisted, putting him in the 87th percentile among point guards – AKA Ja Morant, De’Aaron Fox and James Harden territory.
kris dunn is shooting 97.13% on really difficult-looking layups since joining the jazz. don't bother fact-checking this. it's incredibly accurate. you can tell because i went out two decimal places and everything. pic.twitter.com/TtUptfzc01— Dan Favale (@danfavale) April 8, 2023
That flare for creation carried over to the preseason as well:
Well this is tough stuff from Kris Dunn pic.twitter.com/ZsflOF2Jq6— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) October 15, 2023
Smith and Dunn’s late-blooming nature brings a few things to mind.
Firstly, it exemplifies just how talented the NBA is right now. Smith was solid enough in his short tenure with Portland, and it was an injury that got him cut – a move that was pretty darn close to ending his NBA career.
The margins are so thin around the edges of the league that a ton of NBA-caliber players are left without teams – forced to battle for an incredibly small number of roster spots. Is this a good thing? Well, an excess of talent is a better problem to have than a dearth of talent, and the NBA does deserve some credit for investing in the G League and giving it the resources necessary to become a legitimate minor league system. So… kind of.
Secondly, it raises a question about how patient teams should be when trying to develop players. How patient should teams be? Because at first glance, paying players who haven’t proven much of anything on the court seems a little reductive. But the NBA may have reached a point where there are enough examples of guys developing into good, productive players three-plus years into their career that extending guys based on upside might become as common as drafting them for upside.
If teams fully embrace the development of players rather than giving up when the development is actually an intensive process, it could pay dividends. But it’s certainly a risk – doubling down on a player because of their perceived ceiling could look pretty bad if he never turns into that guy.
Regardless, we could be watching that shift happen already. In recent days, players like Zeke Nnaji (Denver Nuggets) and Deni Avdija (Washington Wizards) signed contract extensions with the teams that drafted them. Both are highly talented to be sure, but neither has blossomed into the player they were drafted to be – hence, they mostly got extended based on their untapped potential, not what they’ve shown on the court thus far.
But no matter what Dennis Smith Jr. and Kris Dunn’s success stories say about the NBA – if anything at all – these guards are two of the best stories in the NBA this season. Brooklyn and Utah are reaping the rewards of two journeymen who have finally started to become the players that teams wanted them to be from the start.