Although Miami Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn has kicked his NBA career off with a bang, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
He had more points (112) through his first five games than any undrafted free agent in league history. In fact, he had more points than any player during his first five games since Kevin Durant (113) in 2007-08.
That led Michael Lee of The Athletic to praise Nunn for emerging out of nowhere:
In this era of over-scouting, there aren’t many unknowns, so finding diamonds in the rough seems impossible. That’s why it’s refreshing when undrafted surprises like Kendrick Nunn emerge. Slipped through the cracks in 2018, scooped from G-League, now getting major buckets for MIA
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) November 1, 2019
However, there’s a reason he fell off the NBA radar for some time.
Nunn, the 59th-ranked prospect in the 2013 recruiting class, began his collegiate career at Illinois, where he averaged 15.5 points as a junior in 2015-16. However, Illinois dismissed him in May 2016 after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge “stemming from a domestic-battery arrest” earlier that year, according to Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune.
Nunn was charged with “two counts of domestic battery after being accused of hitting the woman, pushing her to the floor and pouring water on her during an argument,” per Ryan. He later told Ryan that “he did not hit the woman and only poured water on her,” but he “agreed to a misdemeanor charge at the urging of his attorney and expected to continue to play for Illinois after a suspension.”
In February 2018, Nunn told George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press that he and the woman initially got into an argument over $100 that he said she owed him.
“She owed me something,” he said. “I felt like ‘I’m going to get it back.’ At the time, I felt like I’m going to win everything. I was entitled to that.”
The woman later accused Nunn of “grabbing her by the throat when she was trying to get her wallet back from him,” which he denied, per Sipple.
After the Illini dismissed him, Nunn transferred to Oakland University, where he wound up averaging 25.9 points as a senior in 2017-18. That was second only to Oklahoma guard Trae Young, who the Atlanta Hawks selected with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
Former Oakland assistant Cornell Mann told Sipple that he did his due diligence on Nunn before helping to bring him in.
“If I thought for one second that Kendrick was capable of being demonstrative and crazy or beating women or anything like that, there’s no way I would have touched him,” Mann said. “I could have just said, ‘Nope, I don’t want to be a part of that’ and never said anything to [Oakland head coach Greg] Kampe. But because I did know the kid somewhat, because I did know his high school coach and I knew I would get to the bottom of what I felt was the truth, then I was willing to put myself on the line.”
As part of Nunn’s plea deal, he had to perform 100 hours of community service, complete a 26-week “partner abuse prevention program,” write an apology letter to the victim and remain under court supervision for 18 months, according to Ryan. He told her in 2018 that he had completed all of those requirements and learned from the experience.
“I’ve grown a lot,” he said. “I’m wiser. I’ve moved on from it.”
According to Shandel Richardson of The Athletic, Nunn didn’t generate much buzz leading into the 2018 NBA draft.
“Despite the pedigree and strong senior season, Nunn did not receive an invite to the 2018 scouting combine,” Richardson wrote. “No teams requested a workout with him, and the Oakland coaching staff only heard from a few NBA staffers. Even though a few teams expressed interest late, he never heard his name called on draft night.”
Kampe told Richardson that he felt as though “Nunn’s legal past was a factor” in his going undrafted. As a result, he spent the entire 2018-19 season with the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors, where he averaged 19.3 points on 47.3 percent shooting in 29.0 minutes across 49 games (one start).
The Heat signed Nunn to a multiyear deal in the waning days of the 2018-19 regular season, and he rewarded their faith by showing out with 22.0 points on 50.5 percent shooting across six summer-league games. He chipped in 13.8 points in 18.4 minutes per game during five preseason outings, too.
Nunn has started all six games for the Heat this season, averaging a team-high 19.5 points on 48.4 percent shooting in only 29.5 minutes per contest. Although he figures to cool off to some extent as the year goes on, it appears as though the Heat do have a legitimate rotation-caliber player in the fold.
“We’ve been around each other in the past,” Heat big man Meyers Leonard told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I was always well aware that he could really score the ball and that he’s a talented player.”
No one can diminish what Nunn has accomplished for the Heat so far, even if he does regress to the mean at some point. However, discussing his path to the NBA requires nuance, especially if you’re praising the Heat for “unearthing a diamond in the rough.”
Much like Oakland’s coaching staff did a few years ago, one can only hope the Heat did their due diligence on Nunn’s background before signing him in April. Considering the conflicting stories from Nunn and the victim, we may never know exactly what transpired that night in March 2016.
Perhaps the Heat spoke with Nunn and local authorities and found his description of the altercation to be credible. Or, more cynically, maybe the Heat are gambling on Nunn’s talent winning out in the public consciousness over the domestic violence allegation.
None of this is to say Nunn doesn’t deserve a second chance if he’s truly learned from and rectified his past actions. On the other hand, good luck finding a major professional sports team that hasn’t employed someone with a checkered background, whether rehabilitated or not.
Some might believe Nunn has no place in the NBA given the 2016 allegations. Others may argue that they were allegations that were handled by the legal system, that he learned from his mistake and can become a public force for positive change with domestic violence victims in particular.
Either way, be sure to include the necessary context when reflecting upon Nunn’s rise to a fixture in the Heat rotation.
He’s indeed climbed a steep road to the NBA, albeit one that his past decisions made all the steeper.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.