How a 24-year-old, undrafted rookie became the breakout star of the NBA season and left teams 'kicking themselves' for passing on him

Lynne Sladky/APKendrick Nunn is leading the Heat in scoring.

  • Kendrick Nunn, an undrafted, 24-year-old with the Miami Heat, is leading NBA rookies in scoring this season and looking like a potential star.
  • Nunn’s turbulent college career, which included being dismissed from Illinois after pleading guilty to a misdemeanour battery charge after a domestic violence accusation, caused him to slip through the cracks.
  • Nunn spent last season in the G League and was picked up by the Heat for Summer League, impressing with his scoring prowess before making the Heat’s final roster. He’s now their leading scorer.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The best rookie of the 2019-20 NBA season so far was not even drafted.

Through five games, Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn has lit up the scoreboards and looked to be the kind of diamond-in-the-rough player that teams dream of finding.

The 6-foot-2 Nunn is leading all rookies in scoring, averaging 22.4 points per game on 51.8% shooting, 48% from three. He’s averaging 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and nearly 2 steals per game to go with it.

On Thursday, Nunn scored 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting to help the Heat beat the Atlanta Hawks, 106-97. In the process, Nunn became the highest-scoring undrafted player in his first five games in NBA history. Only Kevin Durant and Jerry Stackhouse scored more points in their first five games over the last 25 years.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote that “several teams are kicking themselves” for passing over Nunn. So, how exactly did a player whose game has translated to the NBA level so smoothly fly under the radar?

A domestic violence arrest and college dismissal

In 2016, Nunn was dismissed from the University of Illinois after pleading guilty to a misdemeanour battery charge stemming from a domestic-violence arrest. Nunn was accused in March of 2016 of hitting a woman in the head, pushing her, then pouring water on her.

According to The Chicago Tribune, two counts of domestic battery were dropped as part of the plea deal. Nunn was ordered to complete 100 hours of public service, enroll in a program on partner abuse, and write a letter of apology to the victim.

Kendrick nunn collegeHeather Coit/APKendrick Nunn was released from Illinois during his junior season.

The University of Illinois released a statement after Nunn’s release, saying: “We care deeply about Kendrick and want him to be successful. But after extensive deliberation, we think it best for our program to reaffirm our core values of trust and respect, to send a strong message about what is acceptable behaviour for our student-athletes.”

Nunn, then a junior, was second in scoring on Illinois, averaging 15 points per game.

Nunn took a year off before joining Oakland University’s basketball team. Nunn averaged 25.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in 2017-18, leading the Grizzlies in scoring and finishing second in the nation in scoring behind Trae Young.

Nunn still flew under the radar

Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo wrote of Nunn in January of 2018: “He’ll turn 23 over the summer, and teams will do their background work, but scouts have been impressed by his play and he appears bound for a chance to prove himself.”

Despite this, Nunn didn’t appear to be a top draft prospect – he didn’t appear in NBA mock drafts and subsequently went undrafted in June.

It’s unclear why Nunn went undrafted. The domestic violence accusation against him likely played a part. Teams may have also been sceptical of a 6-foot-2, score-first guard who put up big points for a smaller college program.

After going undrafted, Nunn signed a partially guaranteed deal with the Golden State Warriors. However, he was cut from the team in October and added to their G League roster. Nunn had some success in the G League with the Santa Cruz Warriors, averaging 19 points per game. He eventually made his way to the Heat’s Summer League team where he once again proved his scoring prowess. He scored 28 points and 27 points in separate games and made the Heat’s training camp roster from there.

Nunn has fit right in on the Heat

Heat centre Meyers Leonard told Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel that he was aware of Nunn’s scoring prowess, and after a talk with him in training camp, has seen Nunn continue to elevate his game.

“Watching him early in September, I walked over to him one day, because he, for whatever reason, wasn’t being aggressive,” Leonard told Winderman. “And I said, ‘Kendrick, look, you can score the ball. So when you’re on that floor, find your way to be aggressive.’ And sure enough, he’s done that … It’s been awesome to see him kind of go from September into training camp and then obviously through the preseason and now. He’s played very, very well.”

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told the team’s official site that Nunn hasn’t seemed fazed by the stage.

Kendrick nunn 2John Bazemore/APKendrick Nunn.

“There’s a long lineage of non-drafted Miami Heat players that have come through our player development program, and he is the next notable one,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a talent, and he has a great work ethic … He’s not stunned by the expectations or the lights of this organisation.”

For some NBA players, learning how to score takes time – they have to build up individual skills over time until there’s a complete package.

That hasn’t been the case with Nunn. He’s a straight-line driver who uses his strength and athleticism to finish gracefully at the rim.

His shooting from deep will cool off, but Nunn shot 33% from three last year in the G League and 38.6% in college. There’s a reason to believe that he can remain a solid three-point shooter. He’s capable of pulling up off the dribble, running off of screens, or hitting catch-and-shoots. He’s hit a ridiculous 52.2% of his threes on catch-and-shoots and should be able to space the floor, even when these attempts stop falling:

Nunn, at his current rate, is set to become a steal for the Heat. He signed a three-year, $US3 million, non-guaranteed contract with the Heat, according to Spotrac. His $US1.6 million salary for 2020-21 becomes guaranteed on the first regular-season game. He has a $US2.1 million qualifying offer for 2021-22.

Nunn told Winderman that he had the option to go to Europe, but turned it down to pursue his NBA dreams.

“I had the option to do that. But I knew I belonged in the NBA and I didn’t want to lower myself, lower my standards just to make more money.”

Nunn finally has gotten his chance in the NBA and is looking like a difference-maker for the Heat.

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