The torrid start to Kendrick Nunn’s NBA career continues opening eyes.
Despite their offcourt reasons for initial hesitation, front offices are likely now kicking themselves for not taking a chance on the undrafted Miami Heat shooting guard who’s showed out against the league’s top young talent. What he’s done all year, he also did during the Rising Stars Game in Chicago.
Nunn seems to be another diamond-in-the-rough discovered under Pat Riley’s Heat regime. The Simeon High School alum hails from a proud tradition of tough, fearless Chicago guards: Pat Beverly and Tony Allen are recent examples of players that might have overlooked due to lack of size, athleticism or scoring ability. Yet, they made up for it with tenacious defense and team basketball.
Nunn has that trademarked Windy City chip on his broad shoulders, but he’s also got an offensive game that perfectly complements his defensive abilities. Even accounting for some regression these past few weeks, he possesses the skillset and organizational fit required for a sustainable, productive NBA career as he proves his impressive start is no mirage.
There were also enough on-court reasons that likely prevented Nunn from being drafted back in 2018.
Scouts might have seen him lacking ideal size (6’2”, 190 pounds) and being a 23-year-old rookie as detriments. While perceived physical imperfections and a limited upside are not what analytically-focused front offices crave for a high draft pick, Nunn’s polished offensive repertoire has made up for these in spades.
His 15.3 points per game through the All-Star break are good for third-most among NBA Rookies, behind only Zion Williamson (22.1 ppg.) and Ja Morant (17.6). The Chicagoan ranks ahead of offensive threats such as the New York Knicks’ R.J. Barrett (13.9), Atlanta Hawks’ Cam Reddish (9.1) and Denver Nuggets Michael Porter Jr. (8.0).
Barrett, Reddish, and Porter all have size, athleticism and “the makeup” of elite scorers. Yet, all three need to develop their raw offensive games more after one year of college. Nunn leans on the reps he gained through four years of college ball and a year in the G-League as a Santa Cruz Warrior.
Nunn’s game explodes when he lives in transition. He uses a superior first step to either drive to the lane through traffic for a layup or floater.
He stops on a dime to create space for a cold jumper. He shoots well off the dribble or in catch-and-shoot situations. He deftly uses screens and crafty body positioning to create shooting space. He weaves acrobatically through the trees to score or kick it out to an open shooter.
These skills provide the necessary tinder for Nunn to catch fire any given night. The Chicago native has already scored 20 or more points 13 times, including a 36-career high December 10 against the Hawks.
The Oakland alum has provided a much-needed offensive boost as Miami’s No. 3 option behind All-Stars Jimmy Butler (20.6 ppg.) and Bam Adebayo (15.8).
Though a sore Achilles recently slowed him down these past seven games—during which he shot 29.8 percent from the field and 24.3 percent from three—he was hitting 46.1 percent overall and 35.6 percent from three before this setback.
Nunn’s Rising Stars Game performance of 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and two steals should alleviate any trepidation that his previous slump is the new normal. He looked healthy and back in a groove.
That bodes well for a Miami Heat team making the stretch run push when they’re already fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Heat Show Trust
Nunn began his year in the starting lineup following a hot preseason and hasn’t looked back since.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters following an October 31 matchup with the Hawks that Nunn’s taking advantage of these opportunities, playing within the concepts of team basketball and playing well off Jimmy Butler.
The Heat trust Nunn so much they even cleared a veteran backcourt logjam to ensure his playing time, dealing mercurial and oft-team suspended Dion Waiters along with banged-up point forward Justice Winslow for defensive anchor Andre Iguodala and filler. These moves were made not only to gear up for a deep playoff run but also to clear the runway for Nunn.
He’s responded by diversifying his game even more.
Nunn has the fourth-highest assists per game (3.5) following the Winslow trade. He will surely be assigned even more ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities to spell Butler and Adebayo, especially providing ball security with a team-low 1.8 turnovers a game.
Both Butler and Adebayo love running in transition, and Nunn lives on that edge, too. He averages about a steal a game, plays the passing lanes well for deflections and finishes the break for an easy score or assist. Oh, and he already has 1.3 defensive win shares.
The Heat have picked up the pace over the season, leveraging their athleticism and collecting fastbreak points. This strategy gives them a shot in a close playoff series against potential opponents such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors who will bring plenty of star power and depth.
Nunn has also built good on-court chemistry with fellow rookie Tyler Herro. The 20-year-old Kentucky product provides a spark off the bench and looks up to the older Nunn:
Both rookies have something to prove and bonded over Summer League and workouts. Expect the duo to take on an even bigger offensive role in 2020-21 with free agent Goran Dragic’s future uncertain.
That work ethic
Nunn scraped for everything he’s earned throughout his basketball career.
His father, Melvin, told SLAM Magazine that Kendrick would practice daily with the older neighborhood boys and stay in the gym after basketball practices to work on his shooting. Melvin, a former collegiate and overseas player, taught Nunn a solid base of defense and team basketball before anything else.
Oakland head coach Greg Kampe has instructed NBA players Khalil Felder, Keith Benson and Rawle Marshall, along with dozens of overseas players, but he told SLAM Magazine that Nunn was the best one ability-wise and desired to work hard.
Nunn’s lunch pail work ethic also quickly earned Jimmy Butler’s respect following a 22-point effort in a January 17 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“He just works,” Butler told Heat Nation’s Johnathan Sherman. “I feel like that’s where your confidence comes from, whether that’s on the defensive end when you’re working on schemes of everything, or it’s the offensive end, getting in your bag, you’re working on shooting the ball, he’s constantly working on his game. He’ll be in this league for a while.”
Nunn repeatedly tells numerous media outlets he doesn’t take his NBA opportunity for granted. He desires to prove to himself and the Heat organization that he will reach his full potential.
“They are building a championship culture here,” Nunn told UPI’s Alex Butler back in November. “I know what championship basketball looks like and feels like. I’ve been a part of some championship teams. The culture here is just for that, and I feel like I fit.”
Bob Bajek is an award-winning investigative journalist and TBW staff writer who has extensive experience in news and sportswriting for various outlets including Bleacher Report, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Football Weekly. He firmly believes Drake spread the Gospel of Steph before his official coming… and fans need to forgive the Warriors after providing free tacos for four NBA Finals.