PROVIDENCE, R.I. – After the first media timeout of Monday night’s game, Providence fans got what was undoubtedly a very welcome sight. They looked on the court and saw a white jersey with the number 3 on the floor. That would be Kris Dunn, the sophomore point guard who might be the team’s most important player.
As if that wasn’t enough, Dunn didn’t just get in the game. He played well, in fact, handing out eight assists with three turnovers in 21 minutes, and going 1-2 from the field. He also had three steals. His minutes were understandably limited since it was his first game back, and one had to figure a big reason to play on Monday was so that he would make his debut before the Paradise Jam, which is next for the Friars after their 70-49 win over Vermont.
Now they hope he’ll be in the lineup for good.
“Hopefully Kris is healthy for the long run, and we can begin to go on a journey that hopefully will be special,” said head coach Ed Cooley, who admitted he was nervous about Dunn’s return. “I was nervous when he went out there. I really just wanted him out there by himself, I don’t want anybody to touch him, I was screaming at the officials if somebody got close to him.”
Dunn’s status was tough to figure as the season started. If you read between the lines of Cooley’s comments after their season opener, you got the sense he would likely be out for a while, and surgery – which would also mean redshirting – was hardly out of the realm of possibilities. It’s the same shoulder he had surgery on over a year ago, so there was reason for pause.
In light of that you could forgive the young man if he had some worries about this after it happened. Cooley said at one point he was struggling emotionally. Having injured it again while doing what he should do – albeit a risky play (diving for a loose ball near the bench) – could easily be discouraging. Dunn is a bright young man who is easy to like both with how he plays and the young man that he is.
“It was exciting to be back on the floor with my teammates,” said Dunn. “My coaches made sure I was mentally prepared, and told me just to be calm and relaxed and just play the game.”
Added forward Kadeem Batts: “I’m very happy for him and glad to see him back on the court. I know how much he loves the game, so that’s the main thing, his passion for the game and his teammates.”
Dunn missed the first nine games of last season recovering from shoulder surgery for an injury suffered late in his senior year of high school. At the time, the Friars were down in numbers from a number of other injury and eligibility issues, so besides help at the point he represented another body. The same is true now, as the Friars have two players suspended, but Dunn means a lot more to this team than last year’s.
If he stays healthy, Dunn gives the Friars the starting lineup they envisioned before the season. Bryce Cotton, who has more than ably run the show thus far, can play his more natural position off the ball. While he won’t be a ball hog there, he can focus on scoring, something he does well as last year’s Big East scoring champion. He scored 18 points on 7-12 shooting on Monday and still had four assists, running the show when Dunn rested.
Now Cotton’s minutes can be managed better, which is important since he is banged up and averaged 41 minutes in the first two games before playing 29 on Saturday and 32 on Monday night. It also allows them to play Josh Fortune fewer minutes, which is probably better although he has worked hard for them through some occasional shooting struggles. He’s done other things, but is probably more effective in fewer minutes.
Most of all, the team has their floor leader back. That showed up right away when he came in and found LaDontae Henton for a jumper on the second possession, and later he made several long passes for assists.
“He’s a true point guard, pass-first point guard,” said Batts, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds on Monday. “For a big guy like me, who prides himself on running the floor, he’s the perfect guy to play with. He always has his eyes up, and he’s just great to play with.”
Providence went about the process of determining if and when Dunn would play in a deliberate fashion. Cooley said they wanted as many people to take a look at his shoulder as they could so that they would have plenty of information to work with. He wasn’t going to rush him back at all and wanted to do this right. Dunn is a player he recruited while still at Fairfield, then he blew up and became a high-major recruit. The team wants to win, but not at all costs.
“We had a conversation with the doctors, we had a conversation with him,” said Cooley. “It’s one of those things that, as coaches, you’ve got to make sure you protect your player. We’re always going to protect his health over playing him, I think that’s more important, and then we leave it to Kris and his family.”
No doubt, fans, coaches and teammates alike will be wary of any contact involving Dunn near that right shoulder. Cooley’s comments can probably be echoed by all of those parties. He’s very important to this team as their floor leader since they lost the Big East’s all-time assist leader in Vincent Council. On that basis alone, his return is a welcome sight. Add in his history, his character and his importance to the team, and the Friar faithful were surely elated to see him step on the court a few minutes into Monday night’s win.