OKLAHOMA CITY – Almost 2,300 miles from where he launched his professional career last summer, Timberwolves rookie point guard Kris Dunn nonetheless will carry a little bit of Vegas with him when he plays Tuesday night in Brooklyn.
“I’m a gambler,” he said. “That’s how I play. That’s how I get steals.”
It’s just his nature and seems to have always been, since long before the Wolves drafted him fifth overall last summer and he made his Las Vegas Summer League debut not long after that.
Just five regular-season games into his career, he has established himself as an NBA-ready defender even as he and his teammates adapt while Dunn learns to run a pro offense. Dunn is doing so during the Wolves’ flummoxing third quarters and their 1-4 start while Ricky Rubio — a fellow defensive gambler himself — heals from a sprained elbow.
Dunn is tied for 12th in the league — and first among rookies — in steals with an average of two a game, including five against Denver last week.
Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan saw as much four years ago, when he coached Dunn in a USA Basketball under-18 team camp in which Dunn played briefly until he injured his shoulder.
“You could see his defensive ability and talent,” Donovan said.
Now Dunn treads that line between aggressiveness and recklessness, between summoning a coach’s admiration and ire.
Asked if his new coach, Tom Thibodeau, appreciates a gambler, Dunn said: “Sometimes. It’s not good to gamble all the time. Sometimes you have to choose your points. He just likes good defense, discipline. You don’t have to steal the ball, just be in the right position and contest every shot.”
Thibodeau, though, sounds like a man willing to live with Dunn’s nature when he sometimes tries to do too much because of what he sees in him the rest of the time — even on nights like Saturday, when Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook taught Dunn how the game is played at its highest level.
“That’s the type of matchup I like,” Dunn said after Westbrook’s 28-point, eight-assist, six-rebound, three-steal game. “It’s only going to improve my defense going against somebody like that.”
Thibodeau sees in Dunn some of the same instincts he saw in former Wolves star Latrell Sprewell when Thibodeau coached him in New York.
“Kris is very gifted with his anticipation,” Thibodeau said. “I’ve had a number of players like that throughout my career. Sprewell had great anticipation as well. You never want to take that away from them. It’s their ability to read the play and read the ball, but it must be done by fulfilling your team responsibilities first. There’s a discipline that goes along with it.
“As Kris understands the defense better — he’s very, very smart and picks up defense quickly — he’ll know where his opportunities come from. That’s what Sprewell did, and he was very disruptive.”
That said, Thibodeau wants Dunn to position himself properly within the defense structure before he goes searching for steals.
“You can’t just go rogue and recklessly gamble or else you break the whole defense down,” Thibodeau said. “There are going to be opportunities to get steals, but everybody has to know what the other ones are doing. … You can’t gamble and you can’t reach, but I also want Kris to use his instincts. He has great feet. He’s got strength. He’s got great anticipation.
“Just keep doing what he’s doing. Run the team. Play great defense. For a rookie, his defense has been terrific.”
Teammate Andrew Wiggins will attest to that. He remembers getting beat off the dribble against the Nuggets and assuming his man was headed to the basket for a layup.
“I looked and Kris is on the other side of the court with the ball,” Wiggins said. “He has great hands. He definitely gets the most deflections I’ve seen this year. He gets his hands on everything. He’s always active, always trying to figure out where the ball is going. He’s a good defender already. He came into the league a good defender.”