The first word usually heard about Kris Dunn is: tough.
Yes, there is talent. The point guard from Providence — considered by many to be the third-best player in this year’s NBA draft — can score. He might be the best defender in the draft. He’s tall (6-4 with a 6-9½ wingspan) and strong.
But tough has to be the main reason why he was so attractive to Timberwolves president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau, and why he was taken with the fifth overall pick Thursday.
Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden, in their first draft with the Timberwolves, took a point guard even though five-year veteran Ricky Rubio is on the roster. But how could they not? LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram went to Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Lakers to start the draft. Then, with trade rumors swirling, Boston stood fast and took small forward Jaylen Brown. At No. 4, Phoenix selected European big man Dragan Bender.
Dunn was available.
“We think Kris is a great fit for us,” Thibodeau said. “We didn’t know how it was going to unfold. There were going to be some good options for us. We thought this was the best one."
Said Dunn: “I’m excited. I have to buy a lot of jackets. But there is a very talented, young group there. Karl Towns, shout out to him for being rookie of the year. Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine. And Thibs, being the new coach.”
The intrigue was just getting started. Even before the pick was made, there were reports of the Wolves being in trade talks. An ESPN report suggested Minnesota was close to a deal that would have sent Dunn and a player to the Bulls for Jimmy Butler. The 76ers were also calling, in need of a point guard.
Layden acknowledged the interest, saying only that the phone was ringing “a fair amount.”
Said Thibodeau: “There is a lot of chatter on draft night. Some of [the rumors] are real, some aren’t.”
Layden said earlier in the week that Boston, with a slew of picks including No. 3, could set the table for the first round. Turns out the Celtics served up Dunn on a silver platter with their surprise pick of Brown.
What followed two picks later was little hesitation and many answered phone calls.
“When you’re in the war room and you make the pick, and then see how much attention comes from other teams, how much activity is there, it gives you an idea of how much he was valued in the league,” Layden said.
Those calls might persist as the NBA offseason progresses.
But for now, Thibodeau is high on his fellow Connecticut native. Like Thibs, Dunn values toughness and defense. Thibodeau noted Dunn was a good enough high school football player that he could have played in college. Instead, Dunn took the football mind-set onto the court.
“I like the way he can pressure the ball, the way he can defend the pick and roll,” Thibodeau said. “He has to learn the league, his teammates, opponents. But when you look at his lateral quickness, his length, his anticipation, that’s a good place to start.”
A two-time Big East Conference player of the year and defensive player of the year, Dunn — who overcame shoulder injuries — is a person who finishes what he starts, opting to return to Providence for his redshirt junior season with the intention of graduating, which he did.
He became the only Providence player to register at least 1,000 points, 500 assists, 400 rebounds and 200 steals.
“That’s what got me here,” Dunn said of his defense. “The hard work, playing with that grit and that toughness. And I feel like I can distribute a ball and I feel like I can score if the coach needs me to score.”
And he’s tough. A difficult childhood will do that.
As a young man in New London, Conn., his dad was out of the picture and his mother was in and out of jail. Often it was just he and his brother, John, living together alone. He overcame that, has reunited with his dad, excelled on the court and finished school. But not without heartache; right after being drafted Thursday, Dunn spoke tearfully in a TV interview of his mother, who recently died.
Back in Minnesota, Thibodeau said Dunn and Rubio could play together, indicating that for now, Rubio remains a part of his plan.
“I think they have good size, they have good toughness,” Thibodeau said. “I think you’re seeing that more and more now, two point guards on the floor. Both are capable of playing off each other.”
For now, Dunn just wants to get here and start learning. “I feel I’m ready to take on the NBA world,’’ he said.