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Well-Done: Is Ryan Dunn Virginia’s next defensive star?

Diving deep into what makes Dunn so good and what can make him great.

Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

As basketball continues to evolve, with a greater emphasis placed on shooting and offensive skill, it’s up to defenses to find players and tactics to deal with a more spread game. That’s one of the things that makes the hybrid forward position (quick enough to guard on the wing and big enough to be viable on the defensive glass) so integral to the modern game.

Whether it’s college or the pros, teams must find and develop players with enough size and athleticism to guard up or down a position and be in the right places as a help defender. These players are asked to switch out and guard every position along the perimeter, while also working as crucial help defenders when operating as the low person in weak-side coverages. In short: bring lineup versatility to the table, guard everyone, turn as many 3-point attempts into contested 3-point attempts and also protect the rim. Easy enough, right?

This is what makes the Virginia Cavaliers’ Ryan Dunn such an interesting project for one of the premier player development and defensive programs in college basketball. Does Tony Bennett have his next defensive ace? What’s next for Dunn? Let’s take a look back and then project out.

Weak-side rim protection

Dunn played a little over 400 minutes as a freshman — roughly 30 percent of Virginia’s total minutes. We’re dealing with a smaller sample when looking at the numbers; however, Dunn’s impact jumps out when you watch him play, too.

Dunn created all kinds of havoc for Virginia’s defense: 4.6 Stocks (steals + blocks) per 40 minutes. He posted a solid 2.1 percent steal rate, similar to that of De’Andre Hunter’s freshman season, and an insane block rate of 10.6 percent. When Dunn was on the floor this season, he alone blocked nearly 11 percent of opponent 2-point attempts.

Going through Bart Torvik’s database, Dunn is one of only three high-major freshmen — 6’8 or shorter — since the 2007-08 season to post a block rate of at least 10 percent.

This is the truly special portion of Dunn’s game: his ability to block and alter shots as a weak-side rim protector.

Dunn is one of only two ACC rookies — again going back to the 2007-08 season — to finish with a 10 percent block rate and a 2.0 percent steal rate. The only other guy is Walker Kessler who, as a rookie, is already one of the best center defenders in the NBA.

It’s not easy to share the floor with Reece Beekman — an A-1 point-of-attack defender and a Deion Sanders-like menace in passing lanes — and stand out defensively. Give Dunn credit, that’s no small feat. He has the tools and the motor to create events on defense.

When those two shared the floor, Virginia’s defense was elite. According to CBB Analytics, in 269 minutes with Beekman and Dunn on the floor together, UVA allowed 92.2 points per 100 possessions, while posting an 11.2 percent steal rate and a block rate of 18.7 percent, all of which are absurdly good numbers.

Virginia’s defense would pack a serious 1-2 punch if Beekman returns along with a meatier role for Dunn.

Dunn has a high feel for the game as a back-line helper. You can see him reading the floor, looking for opportunities to strike — without losing touch with his own defensive assignment. Combine that processing with his motor, which always runs hot, and his length, and Dunn is able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

Defensive rating is a team-wide metric. A lot of different things go into creating this statistic, including plenty of small-sample shooting luck. That said, it’s worth noting: Virginia’s defense gave up 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Dunn on the floor this season.

With Dunn on the floor, Virginia’s block rate jumped a ridiculous 8.5 percent, too. In those minutes, Virginia’s defensive rebound rate increased by 3 percent as well.

Coverage Map

With Dunn set to spend a good chunk of his playing time at the four, it raises the question: what will the pick-and-roll defensive coverage look like with Dunn guarding the screener?

No real surprise, but Virginia often used Dunn to hedge-and-recover, a foundational element of the Pack Line defense vs. ball screens. On those possessions, Dunn showed good activity showing hard, being a presence at the point of attack, and recovering back to his man. During those recovery moments, Dunn played with good awareness, too.

Here, Dunn is actually matched with Andrew Carr (No. 11) in one of Wake Forest’s small-ball lineups. Twice on this possession, Dunn hedges and contains Tyree Appley (No. 1), a wickedly-talented and speedy playmaker. However, Dunn’s lateral agility and length allow him to be disruptive in these situations.

Now, when Dunn is guarding screens or various handoff exchanges as the four, there’s a good chance the player he’s matched up with will pop out for a three — as opposed to diving to the rim, with another teammate (the five) clogging the paint. Instead, the four wants to pop into space, look for a catch-and-shoot three or attack against a closeout.

Later in the game, Wake Forest has Damari Monsanto (No. 30), a prolific movement shooter (40.5 3P%), set and slip this 1-4 exchange high up the floor. Dunn hedges out at Appley, who quickly passes to Monsanto. If Monsanto (18.9 3PA per 100 possessions) catches this with more than two inches or airspace, he’s letting this thing fly. Dunn denies that open look and forces Monsanto to pass out.

As Virginia has shifted defensively, the program has strayed some from the core principles of the Pack Line. UVA will guard screens differently, not every post touch demands a double team. Dunn can excel in these more versatile concepts, including playing at the level.

Late in the home game vs. Duke, the Blue Devils have their small-ball lineup on the floor: Kyle Filipowski (No. 30) at center, with Dunn marking him. Jeremy Roach (No. 3) dribbles left before Filipowski can even set the 1-5 screen, but watch Dunn snap into action: he takes away Roach’s drive, stays at the level for a couple of dribbles and then recovers back to the dangerous Filipowski.

What happens after Dunn recovers is another special flash from his freshman season. Dunn closes out beautifully, denying the catch-and-shoot and being in great guarding position. As the bulldozing Filipowski drives, Dunn absorbs contact, forces Filipowski to pick up his dribble and then smothers a spinning shot at the rim.

Of course, Dunn is also mostly comfortable switching out on smaller players, which is what his role will look more like when he advances to the professional ranks. With 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Dunn switches on El Ellis (No. 3), another dynamic point guard, which results in a late-clock turnover.

Dunn, at this stage, is probably more advanced when defending up in size, but he can hang with quicker ball-handlers, too.

Putting it all together

There are some possessions when Dunn showcases a wide portfolio of defensive skills; it’s hard not to dream big. These are possessions that include sequences where Dunn does four to five different things well within the span of 10-20 seconds, before closing things down with a block or a defensive rebound (Dunn’s defensive rebound rate of 22.6 percent is another impressive number, though likely not sustainable at that ridiculous clip).

This is from Dunn’s first game: a blowout win over Monmouth. He made me a believer with this possession, and reinforced that belief throughout the season.

Dunn starts the possession by chasing his assignment off a pin-down screen and denying an open three-point attempt. The ball is entered to the post, and Dunn quickly doubles. Once the ball is kicked out and starts pinging around the perimeter, his processing is on display: hard closeout to run another shooter off the line. The effort isn’t done there, though. Dunn makes one of those special defensive plays: as the Monmouth player fakes Taine Murray into the air, Dunn takes off. With only one step, he leaps and blocks this three-point attempt — seriously, look where he takes off from and how much space he covers on the closeout.

Here’s another possession. Clemson runs its Iverson series for Alex Hemenway (No. 12), which turns into slot pick-and-roll action. With All-ACC forward Hunter Tyson spaced, Dunn is in the gap. As the ball is swung to Tyson, Dunn reacts instantaneously and closes out under control — taking away a spot-up look for Tyson (No. 5) without allowing a drive into the paint. Tyson moves it to Brevin Galloway (No. 11), who starts to get by Isaac McKneely but can’t fully turn the corner thanks to a dig from Dunn. Galloway kicks back to Tyson, which leads to another controlled closeout from Dunn.

Tyson (40.5 3P%) gets up a shot this time, but Dunn offers a good contest, which will lower the percentages even for a taller, gifted shooter like Tyson.

This possession reinforces the versatility, attention to detail and length of Dunn. During the 2022-23 season, the 6-foot-8 Tyson worked as a matchup buster. When he played the three for Clemson, Tyson could pick on smaller defenders, including good perimeter defenders like Casey Morsell, by shooting over the top or taking them to the mid-post. When the Tigers downsized and moved Tyson to the four, like the possession above, he could use his speed and three-point shot to find open looks in Clemson’s screening actions.

But then a defender like Dunn enters the picture. All of a sudden, all of those automatic looks and reads are erased. Dunn has the size, speed and feel to be in the right places and disrupt.

A terror in transition

The defensive havoc plays — blocks and steals — created by Dunn can also produce transition opportunities. This is another area where Dunn can really excel and showcase special athleticism.

For instance, Clemson’s Galloway drives by Beekman, but Dunn is there to help, smothering the helpless rim attempt. Immediately, Dunn gets the rebound of his own block and saves the ball before he is carried out of bounds. Once the ball is out of his hands, Dunn takes off on a dead sprint; he flies up the right side of the floor and beats Clemson’s transition defense. Beekman sees him the whole way and floats a gorgeous, well-timed lob pass, which Dunn finishes and gets fouled.

Again, this isn’t normal basketball stuff. This is special.

If that play looks familiar, well, it wasn’t the only time Beekman found Dunn for a lob finish on the break.

And here’s more of the same vs. Louisville: Beekman lobs for Dunn, who sprints out and draws another foul.

When Dunn generates the steal, he has the green light to grab-and-go, something I’d love to see even more from him next season. There’s only so much a transition defense can accomplish vs. a 6-foot-8 athlete coming downhill with a head of steam.

From the NCAA Tournament: Dunn is matched with Jalen Slawson (No. 20), another hybrid forward with NBA potential. Dunn hedges and recovers on the screen, and is in good position to dig/help on the drive, which results in a bad pass and another steal for Dunn. This is a great demonstration of effort from both forwards, with Dunn challenging the older Slawson and earning a foul.

Cut it up

With Dunn back, the arrivals of the ultra-springy Elijah Gertrude and Blake Buchanan, and whatever happens with the transfer portal, Virginia is set to have a collection of impressive athletes at all levels of the floor next season. If Beekman returns for his senior year, that athletic upside jumps even higher.

As Dunn looks to improve as a shooter, he’s already shown the ability to have an impact in the half court as a cutter. The volume isn’t there, but Dunn shot 71.4 percent (25-of-35 FGA) at the rim this season, including 17 dunks (1.7 per 40 minutes). Virginia can draw up plays to get Dunn loose cutting to the basket or he can find those looks with heady movement.

Virginia is in one of its small-ball lineups vs. Duke. Ben Vander Plas screens and pops for Kihei Clark. With Dereck Lively (No. 1) in more of a drop, Clark pressures the paint and BVP is open on the pop. Clark kicks out, which causes Jacob Grandison (No. 13) to sprint out. Instead of chilling on the wing, Dunn cuts downhill, BVP hits him and Dunn dunks to give UVA a lead.

This is textbook off-ball offense from a non-shooter: Beekman runs pick-and-roll vs. Furman’s drop coverage. As Beekman gets downhill left, driving in the direction of Dunn, Slawson takes a step up. Dunn spots the opportunity, cutting backdoor — he signals for the lob, but is able to adjust to Beekman’s bounce pass.

(Furman’s 1-3-1 zone undid Virginia in this game, but Dunn probably should’ve played more: UVA was +7 in 18 minutes with Dunn on the floor, per Pivot Analysis.)

Here’s a similar setup: empty-corner pick-and-roll with Clark and Shedrick. Dunn moves from the corner into the dunker spot and finishes through contact from Slawson.

Virginia could also look to take advantage of Dunn’s ability to play above the rim in schemed looks. As I wrote about in February, Virginia started to use Dunn as a lob target on back screens in its after-timeout Box Rip actions.

For years now, Bennett has showcased a series of different tactics vs. Syracuse’s aggressive 2-3 zone, including looking to lob over the top when the back line of the zone is lifted.

Dunn’s activity as a cutter also opens up some passing opportunities.

Here, Virginia flows into its spread pick-and-roll offense. BVP screens and dives while Dunn lifts to the nail. Georgia Tech is caught in between coverages, and Dunn capitalizes with a quick-touch hi-lo read to BVP.

During his freshman season, Dunn was more of a selective offensive rebounder for a team that didn’t prioritize hitting the glass. However, he cashed in on some of his crashes on the offensive glass.

Watch him perfectly time up this cut to the rim vs. Wake Forest. Clark drives and dishes to a cutting Armaan Franklin. As Franklin gathers to lay the ball up, Dunn — with every Wake defender focused on Franklin — flies out of the corner and finishes with a put-back dunk.

Again, you can see Dunn’s feel for the game, his processing, his motor and his in-air body control.

From the Boston College game: Virginia is in its Inside Triangle offense, with Dunn spaced on the right wing, outside of the middle action. As McKneely’s shot goes up, no one on BC accounts for Dunn, who uses this runway of space to ramp up and spike home another put-back slam.

The next step: Perimeter shooting

This may come across as reductive, but if Dunn turns into a positive three-point shooter — volume and some level of efficiency — then he’ll play in the NBA for a long time. He has the size, defensive upside/impact and athletic profile. Perimeter shooting is what’s needed to fully unlock these other traits and make Dunn’s game more scalable.

The defense is special, but the only way to really keep that on the floor is by hitting shots and forcing teams to close out. That’s what makes this offseason such a crucial development moment. Dunn’s three-point shooting doesn’t need to pop just yet; he still has time to grow as a prospect. For Virginia’s sake, though, it’d be massive for Dunn to make a leap on offense.

As far as Dunn’s numbers go, there isn’t much at the college level. Dunn shot just 5-of-16 on three-point attempts (31.3 3P%), 11-of-22 from the line (50 FT%) and 3-of-11 on long two-point attempts (27.3 2P%), per Bart Torvik’s shot data.

Despite the low volume, Dunn has some willingness to launch from deep, including some looks vs. tough contests.

As long as he gets these shots up with some frequency, it’ll force opponents to hard close on him, which will open up drives to the rim. Given Dunn’s size and finishing skills, UVA should want him getting downhill against bent defenses as much as possible.

Dunn also has a willingness to set hard screens. He may not be Jack Salt, but Dunn works to free his teammates up. Package that with his cutting and an improved jumper, and it’ll go a long way.

During his freshman year, Dunn had only a limited number of opportunities to attack one-on-one. The handle isn’t quite there, though this could look cleaner if it’s coming with the defense already in rotation.

It’ll be interesting to see how Dunn and McKneely continue to develop as a screener-shooter pairing. You can see the vision: McKneely is already a big-time movement shooter, with some off-dribble juice, too. If Dunn gets comfortable shooting out of pick-and-pop action, those looks will be there when McKneely curls pin-down screens in the Blocker Mover offense: two on the ball, Dunn will be open on the pop.

Ball Mover

Dunn dished out only nine assists as a freshman in a little over 400 minutes: 4.3 percent assist rate. That said, assists only tell a part of the story. Even in a limited offensive role, Dunn showed some passing reads that extend (at least slightly) beyond station-to-station. Given Dunn’s positional flexibility, vacillating between the three and four his passing reads take different shapes within the confines of Virginia’s offense.

When Dunn is at the four, he’s going to set more screens — whether it’s in a ball-screen setup or Blocker Mover. Those screening actions can create passing opportunities. In a limited sample, Dunn showed some vision.

These same types of reads can flow into Dunn’s pick-and-roll activity as well: there’s already some short-roll passing to his game.

Move him to the de facto three spot, and the usage shifts. When Dunn was able to use the occasional pin-down rep, he showed some playmaking chops.

More reps will lead to greater comfort in these situations. Of course, this is contingent on Dunn’s shooting development. If there isn’t some growth as a shooter, that’ll limit his usage as more of a wing, and could alter Bennett’s play-calling mix (Blocker Mover, Inside Triangle).

It’ll be interesting to see, as Dunn develops, if he grows into a role that allows for more on-ball scoring and decision-making. If so, his ability to improve as a passer will be crucial to monitor, too.

Altogether, Dunn is quite an exciting player to watch for the Wahoos moving forward. The transfers of Kadin Shedrick and Isaac Traudt have left Virginia’s front-court cupboards noticeably bare. But, in Dunn, Tony Bennett and his staff have a high floor, high ceiling player who can impact winning at a high level with some modest improvement in certain areas.