Nylon Calculus: Can Kris Dunn become an effective 3-point shooter?

In today’s modern NBA, teams need a point guard or primary ball-handler who can shoot efficiently. Gone are the days when having a point guard who can facilitate the offense and get everyone involved was enough. Having lead guards space the floor is crucial to a modern offense, from elite units like the Warriors and Rockets, down to those fighting to make the playoffs.

With shooting being such an important skill, it’s one of the first areas a young guard gets judged on. If a guy can’t shoot well in his rookie season, we are quick to write them off as net negatives in that area forever. But how often do shooters who struggle at the beginning of their career actually improve?

Chicago Bulls point guard Kris Dunn Dunn was the No. 5 overall pick two years ago by the Minnesota Timberwolves and one of the biggest knocks on him was his 3-point shooting. Despite shooting 37.5 percent from 3 in his senior year at Providence, scouts still worried whether his shot would translate to the NBA game. Low volume was the concern — despite shooting over 35 percent in his final two seasons of college, Dunn only averaged 2.3 and 3.4 3-point attempts per game respectively in those years.

So far, the 3-point shooting from Dunn has been near disastrous.

In his rookie season, Dunn shot a woeful 28.8 percent from 3. Granted he only took 2.8 attempts per 100 possessions that season but the percentage was still flat out horrible for a guard. Dunn was moved last summer to Chicago as part of the Jimmy Butler trade. Chicago knew Dunn’s 3-point shooting was bad and had him work with Fred Hoiberg on improving his shot, not just on range but mechanics too. Along with an uptick in minutes, the work seemed to pay off as Dunn saw improvements in both his overall shooting and 3-point percentages.

His 3-point shooting went up nearly four percentage points from 28.8 to 32.1 and in the mid-range, he improved from 33 to 42.2 percent in his sophomore season. Dunn also saw his true shooting percentage jump up from 43.2 to 48.8. These three numbers are significant improvements from where Dunn was just a year ago. He’s become an okay shooter from the mid-range and from 3, he’s shown that he can at least knock one down if left wide open as he shot 32.7% from 3 on shots where he had more than six feet of space from the closest defender. He was near unplayable just a year ago and now he has shown some signs of life in terms of the player he can be.

These numbers do bring up an interesting question: How likely is it that Dunn can improve from here? Obviously for the Bulls to become a better team, Dunn will need to become a better offensive player. His shooting is the key to that. His improvement from his rookie year to his second year makes one optimistic but how many players have made a similar leap and actually become good 3-point shooters?

Sixty-six players over the past few seasons played at least 500 minutes in their rookie year, attempting at least 2.5 3-pointers per 100 possessions, while shooting less than 40 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3s. The number was reduced to 45 when you discard players who ultimately didn’t play more than two seasons in the league.

The graphs below look at that cohort of players and show how many years it took those players to hit their peak 3-point percentage and what that peak 3-point percentage was.

The second graph shows a fairly even distribution. Roughly half the players peaked at less than 35 percent and roughly half peaked above that mark.

But the first graph, the one which tracked which year in the league they were in, offers a more disappointing view. Most of the players which shot similar percentage to Dunn did in his rookie year saw their peak in the first four seasons of their career. This could spell some trouble for the Bulls point guard as he will be heading into his third season with the team and fit right smack dab in the middle of this time window. By the looks of the projections, things aren’t looking up for Dunn in terms of every consistently becoming a decent shooter. It also doesn’t help that Dunn is already 24 years old. By the looks of it, this could very well mean that we are in the midst of the best stretch of Dunn’s career in terms of shooting.

Last season Dunn shot better on pull-up 3-pointers (35.6 percent) than he did on catch-and-shoot opportunities (29.6 percent). For a player who is likely to be a third option on this team behind Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen,  Dunn will likely find himself in a lot of catch-and-shoot situations as he won’t be always the one initiating the offense. Given how much he has struggled shooting the ball in his first two seasons, teams are going to live with Dunn taking open 3s.

This means he’s always going to be one of the first kick out options when LaVine or Markkanen drive into the lane which would draw in defenders. The pull-up number is nice but the catch-and-shoot numbers are far more troubling.

It seems the Bulls have remained somewhat optimistic about Dunn though. Early this year Fred Hoiberg coined a phrase from Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden when talking about Dunn.

“You go, we go”

This is also what Madden told his former lead-off man Dexter Fowler and Hoiberg believes it applies to Dunn as well. Dunn has also praised Hoiberg for helping him with his shooting mechanics.

But Dunn’s shot in the starting lineup, or even Chicago’s future, is uncertain, especially when there is a prospect like Trae Young on the board. Having a guard who can shoot consistently from deep is something which most teams crave and Young is just that. Should the Bulls choose to draft Young, they would be upgrading offensively at the point guard position while also making a statement about Dunn’s future with the team.

Now, this doesn’t mean that having a guard who can’t hit consistently from three is a death wish. It just forces more from the other four players on the floor and shrinks the court to an extent. But point guards of that type can still flourish, Ricky Rubio is an example. He is an exceptional passer and one of the best in the NBA. He’s maximized his strengths as a ballplayer and that’s what Dunn needs to do. Dunn needs to learn how to become more of a facilitator on offense while also continue to be one of the best defensive point guards out there. He needs to keep being a pest defensively and hope in some way that working with Hoiberg can continue to fix his jump shot. Cause by the numbers, things aren’t looking up.