Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first seasons of notable rookies. What did the Miami Heat see from Kendrick Nunn?
A month into the basketball-less abyss of the suspended season, Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn made a bold statement. If you watched him at all this year you’d know he wasn’t lacking for confidence, but Nunn told the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman, unequivocally, that he was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year:
“I think people will say that [Morant] is Rookie of the Year, but I don’t believe it. The most value should be in the wins. And we’re both starting guards on teams, and our team has been holding it down. We’re a playoff team, so go ahead and give that Rookie of the Year to Kendrick Nunn.”
I’m not here to argue with Nunn about awards (I’ll take Morant) his rookie season was impressive — starting 62 of 65 games for a team playing at a 51-win pace, while averaging 15.6 points, 3.4 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that Nunn went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft and spent the 2018-19 season with the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors. It took a full season of G League basketball for him to even an NBA roster spot, but once he did, he never looked back.
The Heat sit in a strange middle-ground, a fringe contender with both veterans looking for one more shot and young stars coming into their own. How sustainable was Nunn’s rookie season and how does he fit into the team’s present and future?
What did we expect?
One of the major reasons Nunn went undrafted was his dismissal from the University of Illinois team in 2016 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery in a disturbing domestic violence incident. He transferred to Oakland University and finished his college career there in impressive fashion but still not answering every question about his NBA potential. A Big Board note from The Stepien in 2018 included concerns about both his decision-making and defensive upside.
Nunn is an elite shooter with solid size for the combo guard spot in the NBA at 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and a chiseled 193 lbs frame. At Oakland this past season, he was able to get to the rim frequently and is very comfortable finishing with his left hand. He made progress as a pick-and-roll facilitator, but he still plays a score-first style on offense and forces a lot of bad shots. He’s flat-footed on defense without the necessary size or athleticism to compensate. He also has a dicey off-court history as he was dismissed from Illinois after a misdemeanor battery charge relating to a domestic incident. Nunn will gets looked based on his shooting, but there isn’t much else he offers at the NBA level.
Nunn’s G League numbers weren’t impressive enough to earn him a call-up, or entirely answer some of those lingering concerns from his college career. He did score 19.3 points per game but had nearly as many turnovers (107) as assists (138) and took more mid-range shots (197) than shots in the restricted area (179).
The Heat signed him in April to a three-year, partially guaranteed deal. But until he dropped 40 in their final preseason game it didn’t even seem like a sure thing that he’d be a part of their rotation.
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What did we get?
From the pre-draft and post-G-League evaluations, it seemed like the key to success for Nunn would be some tweaks to his style on offense. Instead, he managed to just do the same thing she’d done before, much more effectively than he had in the past.
More than third of Nunn’s shots this season were pull-up jumpers and he was exceptionally accurate — making 38.5 percent from beyond the arc and 46.1 percent inside the line. That pull-up jumper really unlocked the rest of his offensive game, giving the defense another variable to worry about and letting him pick and choose when to attack. It’s one of the reasons he was so effective on drives — shooting better than 50 percent on more than 7 drives per game — and as a pick-and-roll threat, where he ranked in the 80.1 percentile in points per possession.
Nunn wasn’t just a scorer in pick-and-roll situations, he averaged 6.0 potential assists per game, fourth-most among all rookies. Even on a per-minute basis, that was more than other non-point-guard rookies hyped for their playmaking, like R.J. Barrett and Jarrett Culver. Right from the jump, Nunn impressed with his decision-making and you could see the solid pick-and-roll chemistry he developed with Bam Adebayo.
It’s not just good screens and simple reads either. Adebayo and Nunn really worked collaboratively at manipulating space, changing speeds, screening and re-screening and continuing to probe for the right moment to attack. The extra wrinkle is that Adebayo has become an excellent playmaker as well and this set has also sorts of flexibility.
About a third of Nunn’s assists this season (63) were to Adebayo and Adebayo sent an almost identical number (65) back to Nunn. A look at the Heat’s assist network from last season, from PBPStats.com, shows what a useful two-way hub Nunn and Adebayo were.
For all the good Nunn did this year, there is an implied ceiling as well. Nunn will turn 25 in August and is much closer to his theoretical athletic peak than the rest of the rookie class. He was dramatically ineffective in isolation which speaks to cap on his ability to operate without the synergy of a skilled big-man partner. He turned in a solid defensive effort this season and his strength allowed him to split time fairly evenly between both guard positions but there are some moving parts there.
Having him play point guard full time would require some very specific accommodations from his backcourt partner. And it all gets a bit more complicated without an elite and versatile wing defender like Jimmy Butler next to him, who is also capable of playing both on and off the ball. Nunn played more than two-thirds of his minutes next to Butler and about 60 percent with both Butler and Adebayo. When he played without either of them, Nunn posted an effective field goal percentage of just 48 percent and just 6.6 assists per 100 possessions.
All that is to say, Nunn is not the second coming of James Harden. He benefited tremendously this season from playing on a very skilled roster that let him lean into his strengths. As a complementary piece, he is an ideal fit for the current Heat roster, someone who can hold up on defensive and offer both scoring and creation at the other end. However, as the Heat’s roster rolls over with pieces like Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard potentially moving on and Butler perhaps aging out further out of his prime, Nunn may find himself in a situation that increasingly asks him to do more than he’s suited for.
For an undrafted G League cast-off, the Heat have found incredible value — more than just an average role player, someone who could be a key contributor on a contending team. Still (and Nunn might disagree here), he’s probably not on the same stardom track as Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.