EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Ryan Dunn is both safe bet, gamble for Phoenix Suns in NBA Draft

Jun 26, 2024, 10:44 PM

The Phoenix Suns took both a sure thing and a high risk with their first-round pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, selecting Virginia wing Ryan Dunn 28th overall.

Dunn is a phenomenal defender right now. He provides immediate value in a skill set that will help the Suns win games next season. That alone is a good enough reason to pick him.

Phoenix has been lacking an impactful on-ball defender with size since Mikal Bridges was traded. Dunn is nearly 6-foot-8 and has a wingspan over 7-foot-1.  His first step laterally for how large of a human being he is will shock you. Get acclimated with this five-minute highlight reel and focus on those on-ball moments plus the rotations off the ball as a weak-side shot-blocking threat.

He is a playmaker, meaning he generates takeaways. It’s not just smart, heady rotations. He’s swinging possessions.

Dunn totaled 77 blocks and 44 steals last season in 34 games. The last NBA prospects to reach at least 75 and 40 were Brandon Clarke, Matisse Thybulle, Jordan Bell, K.J. McDaniels and Willie Cauley-Stein, going back 10 full seasons, per Stathead. It’s a strange mix but speaks to how comparable his defensive chops were if you remember how dominant those guys were as pre-draft prospects.

Dunn can confidently defend four positions and has a sturdy enough frame to scale down to a small-ball 5 spots for spurts. Phoenix last season didn’t have anyone ideal for the job of defending hyper-explosive ball-handlers like Anthony Edwards or Ja Morant. That’s where Dunn comes in, and he can scale up to power wings like Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, too. Kevin Durant was Phoenix’s best shot in matchups for all of those players.

Dunn could make a few All-Defense teams if he can hold down a serious rotation role. But can he stay on the court to do so?

No clue, but if you had to choose one side or the other, you’d guess he cannot.

That’s because Dunn made a total of 12 3-pointers across two collegiate seasons, shooting 23.5% on 51 total attempts. Dunn was also a very poor free-throw shooter, 52-for-99 (52.5%) in two seasons.

But if there was a NBA general manager to properly identify whether a guy can shoot, the one to give the benefit of a doubt to is James Jones.

“He’s improving and what he was asked to do at Virginia was to defend and he relied on his athleticism,” Jones said. “The shooting isn’t where he wanted it to be or where we think it will be in a few years. But he’s an impactful player and great players find a way to impact the game, not just with the offensive box score.

“I’m confident with our staff, with [coach Mike Budenholzer], our coaches, that he’ll be primed to improve as a shooter. And if he can do that and do it quickly, I think we found a gem.”

The form is better than what you’re picturing, so it’s not surprising he stood out in the workout stages of the process.

With that said, a player with that shooting resume is rarely selected in the first round. Thybulle, an incredible defensive prospect out of Washington, is a great comp and went 20th overall in 2019. In college, he shot a much better 35.8% from 3 (on 534 total attempts) and 78.2% at the foul line. And he still is seen as a non-shooter, even though with the Portland Trail Blazers he has knocked down 35.8% of his 3s in 87 games.

That’s the key here. Even if Dunn logs a 3-point percentage in the mid-30s, which would be considered a success, he is still going to be left wide open. Dunn will have to keep shooting. And at Virginia, he was apprehensive constantly. There was a lack of aggression to take advantage of the space he was given.

He cannot be Landry Shamet, a former Suns player who hesitated in a different way. The amount of times Shamet tentatively dribbled one-to-two times inside the 3-point line only to do nothing, kick the ball back out and allow the defense to reset as the shot clock was on death’s door was immensely frustrating to watch. Dunn cannot kill possessions like that or this will not work. And that applies even if he becomes a tolerable shooter as well.

When Dunn wasn’t looking to shoot, there still wasn’t enough off-the-bounce stuff to inspire hope he can be a playmaker, providing offensive value elsewhere. Dunn had 35 assists in 65 games.

What he does do nicely is fill in gaps elsewhere. Dunn grabbed 2.2 offensive rebounds per game as a sophomore and was also a great cutter.

With the size and athleticism, a decently-sized chunk of the potential value here is using Dunn as a screener while playing him with four shooters so his offense can be viable. He’s big enough to set a solid screen and if he can be trusted as a decision-maker in the short roll, there’s tons of upside there. In ways, he can serve as the lob threat we’ve been talking about the Suns potentially adding in the center rotation. The short roll stuff is a big ask, though, as once again the playmaking flashes weren’t really there.

Phoenix ever-so-briefly used Josh Okogie like this, a player with a similar profile to Dunn in a smaller build. It should do that far more with Dunn and the thought is Budenholzer will embrace a more modern philosophy like screening with wings more often.

“You’ll see once we get into the season, I think he will do a lot of that,” Jones said of Dunn screening. “I think it’s the versatility 1) that he provides but then 2) the versatility of our offense. I think we’ll see we want all of our guys to be screeners. You create mismatches sometimes with guards screening on bigs, bigs screening on guards and guards screening for each other.

“He’s just one of those guys that if you do get him in a screening position, he has the athleticism and the burst to be able to get to the rim and finish.”

But to keep reinforcing it, Dunn has to be decisive and instinctive with his choices in those situations. You’ll remember Okogie’s frozen moment in Game 2 of the 2023 second-round series against the Denver Nuggets. Can’t happen for Dunn.

Another benefit of this would be unleashing Dunn’s physical profile even further. The Suns have been in dire need for high-tier athleticism and Dunn ranks highly on the roster as it is.

Dunn did not get to show the full extent of his physical gifts in Virginia’s half-court offense that has been a yearly crime against humanity for over a decade. All footage of it should be jammed into a cannon, to be shot at the sun. It will be a giant boost in both pace and space for Dunn to operate more freely. And to the decision-making and playmaking concerns, Virginia’s style of play could have been a real detriment.

The shooting is not going to develop overnight. A lot of the thought behind this pick was grabbing a prospect that can handle a rotation role next season. If Dunn is a sub-34% 3-point shooter, Phoenix will have to be inventive to keep him from dragging down the entire geometry of the offense. The Suns didn’t assemble this amount of offensive talent only for them to have to just kicking it to an open Dunn in the corner over and over and over again.

There is a strong, strong amount of trust required to buy into the value of a Dunn selection given the context of how important this first-round pick is to Phoenix’s efforts in filling out the rest of the rotation. The shooting resume borders on blind faith.

But taking a chance with the pick should also be commended. The Suns could have just snagged Marquette point guard Tyler Kolek or UCLA center Adem Bona, two prospects with relatively solid floors that lack any real promise suggesting they could be starters one day. If Dunn is knocking down open 3s at a slightly below average rate this season, he’s starting Game 1 of the first round. It is without a doubt not the most likely outcome but there is a path toward Dunn being the steal of this draft.

So with that in mind, this is the rare draft pick that can’t really be graded too harshly before he even plays. All of Dunn’s NBA future relies on his jumper. That’s it. So until we know if Dunn can shoot or not right away, it’s unfair to knock the selection. The bet for now, however, is that he can’t. So that task falls on Budenholzer and his staff to make it work in the meantime.

And good on the Suns for getting a little more value out of trading down six spots. Phoenix picked up No. 56 in this draft from the Denver Nuggets, along with a 2026 second-round pick and 2031 second-round pick. There is a severe drop-off in hit rate for second-round selections once the mid 40s come crawling around, so that 2031 second rounder is the one to monitor.

Phoenix could also try and finagle on Wednesday night to get a prospect to fall to 56th. This is a consistent practice used by agents to get prospects into more desirable locations, particularly in going undrafted to sign two-way contracts. The Suns will be an interesting landing spot given the lack of young talent. Another rookie would have a chance to earn a role but it’s also a sell job most contenders attempt in that range over the years.

The bottom line is Dunn was always going to fall into the late 20s, so squeezing out three additional second-round picks instead of just taking him 22nd was a win. Add on the 2028 second-round pick from Boston and the Suns now have three future seconds to use in trades going forward.

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