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Making the NBA is Kris Dunn's latest challenge, but not his greatest

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The Providence point guard enters the 2016 NBA Draft after already living through a lifetime of adversity.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- When Kris Dunn heard the question he needed a moment to collect himself. The Providence point guard was staring back at media stacked three deep around a small table at the 2016 NBA Draft Combine, preparing to tell an old story to a new audience that serves as the preface to his remarkable rise.

Dunn had just alluded to his strong bond with Friars coach Ed Cooley, a connection forged over similarly traumatic childhoods. When Dunn was asked to expound on that, he spent a beat searching for the right words.

"It wasn't easy," Dunn began. "It was me, my brother and my mom. ... My mother, she was in and out of jail for certain reasons. She was in a bad situation. ... We lived in the projects, we came from poverty. ... We did what we had to do to survive."

Dunn didn't have to be on the West Side of Chicago on this dreary Thursday afternoon. He might have been the only projected top-five pick at the combine after contemporaries like Brandon Ingram, Ben Simmons, Dragan Bender, Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray opted out of the event. Even more, Dunn could already be where his peers are waiting to go.

He could have been in the league by now. A year ago, he was considered a safe first-rounder and a possible lottery pick after a breakout redshirt sophomore year. In that situation, even players from fortunate backgrounds have every reason to turn pro. Dunn decided to stay in school.

After another year at Providence, Dunn's stock is now in an even more favorable position. He'll be the first point guard off the board in the 2016 NBA Draft and he'll enter the league with the prestige of being a top pick. To hear him tell it, he was in no rush. After what Dunn overcame just to get here, this should be the easy part.

* * *

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(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Dunn was in fourth grade when his mother disappeared. He was left with his brother John, four years his elder, in a Virginia apartment to fend for himself. The boys stopped going to school and sold their shoes for money. Legend has it Kris would play one-on-one games for extra cash.

Eventually, Dunn's father, out of his life completely up to that point, located the boys and took them under his care in New London, Conn. That's where Dunn started to grow into a star athlete.

As a junior, he led his high school to an undefeated season that ended in a state championship. He played summer ball with Andre Drummond, where the pair became the most intimidating duo on the grassroots circuit. He was a five-star recruit, a McDonald's All-American and the exact type of player who expects to one day find themselves preparing for the NBA draft.

For Dunn, it wasn't that easy. It never is.

He came to Providence with a torn labrum that limited his freshman year to just 25 games. The next year, he suffered the exact same injury diving for a loose ball in an exhibition game against Rhode Island College. Dunn tried to tough it out for four games but the pain became unbearable. While high school classmates like Nerlens Noel and Marcus Smart were already moving on to the NBA, Dunn couldn't even finish a season of college basketball.

"It brought me to the bottom real quick," Dunn said of his injuries. "I was in a bad space."

Shortly after the surgery, Dunn received the worst news of his life. His mom had died.

* * *

When Kris Dunn finally got the chance to play college basketball, he was nothing short of electric. He averaged over 15 points per game, finished No. 1 in the country in assist rate and No. 5 in steal rate, according to KenPom.

He was a master operating the pick-and-roll, and might have been the best defensive point guard in the country. With a strong 6'4, 220-pound frame and a 6'9 wingspan, Dunn had everything the NBA was looking for. He might have gone No. 14 to the Oklahoma City Thunder (who took point guard Cameron Payne). He might have gone No. 22 to the Chicago Bulls (who took Bobby Portis). Instead, Dunn shocked everyone by deciding to come back to Providence for one more season.

"I only had one full year of college basketball as a point guard," Dunn said. "I know the NBA is filled with a bunch of great point guards. In order to hang with those guys, I need to learn the game more. I needed to know more about my game, what I needed to work on.

"This year was an improving season for me. Last year I was just going out there and playing freely. This year I tried to correct the things I needed to work on and go from there."

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(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Dunn spent his final season with a target on his back. He was considered the No. 1 player in the country heading into the year and everyone knew it. Providence had lost several key contributors from the previous season, including the Big East's leading scorer LaDontae Henton. Kris Dunn might have been the best player in America, but an NCAA Tournament bid was not assured for Providence.

Dunn took them there anyway. This time he helped make teammate Ben Bentil the Big East's leading scorer. His three-point stroke got better, he cut down on his turnovers and Providence gutted out a last second win in its first NCAA Tournament game against USC.

The Friars fell to a powerhouse North Carolina team in the next round, but Dunn's season had been a success by any reasonable measure. He now sits as the top point guard prospect in the draft and could get drafted as high as No. 3. That was the plan all along, right?

"That wasn't the plan," Dunn said. "The plan was to graduate, get my education and be a good role model for my sisters."

There's reason to believe that Dunn can be even better in the NBA than he was in college. Dunn is a natural facilitator who prides himself on his defense. At Providence, he often had to carry the scoring load as the most talented player on the floor. That didn't always feel natural, but he still found a way to rack up points even with defenses keyed in on him.

After four years in college, Dunn finally feels ready. He'll graduate from Providence next week with a degree in social sciences, and he's proved that he could will a team that didn't always have the most talent to impressive heights. At 22, he's older than many of the top prospects at the top of the 2016 NBA Draft. He's also lived through so much more. At long last, Kris Dunn is finally ready to tell a new story.