For those that thought the Hinkle Fieldhouse magic that put the Butler Bulldogs on the map as a championship contender went out the door when superstar Gordon Hayward and coach Brad Stevens left, they have clearly not been paying attention to Kellen Dunham, the new face of Butler basketball.
"If Kellen scores 30 and the team loses, he will be totally sick. And if he scores one point and the team wins, he will be the most excited player in the locker room," his former high school basketball coach at Pendleton Heights, Brian Hahn, said, "He is totally unselfish." This mantra of unselfishness seems to fit the culture that has been built at Butler University, even after the departure of former head coach Brad Stevens, who took the team to back-to-back National Championship Finals appearances in 2009-10 and 2010-11.
The evolution of Kellen Dunham in 2014 came on like a Midwestern wind. He started the season scoring in double-figures in 19 consecutive games, topping out with a sensational 28-point effort on the road against St. John's where he knocked down six threes, a season-high. On only three occasions all year has Dunham been held under double-digits.
While his scoring average remains steady from his sophomore year, where he averaged 16.4 points per game, to his junior campaign of 16.6 points, his efficiency has exploded. Just a 39 percent shooter from the floor in 2013-14, Dunham has upped that number to 44.1 in 2014-15. The same goes from beyond the arc, where he previously shot 35.5 percent, before morphing himself into one of the Big East's most lethal threats from downtown with a 42.4 percent stroke.
When asked about the obvious comparison between Dunham and Hayward due to their make up and choice of schools, coach Hahn disagreed, "I think Kellen is a very different player than Gordon. Gordon is bigger, stronger, and more athletic. Kellen is a better shooter and shot maker. I think Kellen's game has a lot of similarities to J.J. Redick's." Considering that, prior to Tyler Hansbrough breaking his record in 2009, Redick was the all-time leading scorer in the history of the ACC is quite the comparison. Redick, who is a former first-round selection, is now in the midst of his eighth NBA season.
If you head over to draft guru Chad Ford's "Top 100" rankings, Dunham checks in at #83 overall, or the 14th best shooting guard. The positives from that page include, "Excellent shooter with deep range; good passer; and high basketball IQ." The negatives include, "Needs to add strength; not an elite athlete." Despite what the pro game may have concerns about, coach Hahn knows the type of competitor that Dunham is, "When I saw his physical growth along with his commitment to improvement, I knew he was going to be a special player."
In the midst of only his junior season, Dunham is certainly not a lock for next year's NBA Draft; in fact, he would be pretty lucid to leave, sans a Stephen Curry-like performance in the NCAA Tournament. But what if a Steph Curry performance isn't beyond the horizon of possibility? "I think the European influence on the NBA, along with the success of skill-based players like Stephen Curry and Kyle Korver, has opened NBA scouts to the potential of players like Kellen," said Hahn, "If an NBA team is looking for a player who can consistently make tough shots, will compete 82 nights a year, and be a positive influence in the locker room and in the community, then they need to give Kellen an opportunity."
Currently fourth in the conference in scoring, Dunham has been the go-to player for the Bulldogs during a season of transition. Under first year coach Brandon Miller in 2013-14, the Bulldogs went a dreadful 14-17 during the season, completely whiffing on an NCAA Tournament bid. In three of his final four games of the season, Dunham went a combined 2-for-23 from three-point land (the other contest sandwiched in between, he went 7-for-7 from three en route to a 29-point game). Fast-forward a year later, and it's now Chris Holtmann at the helm. He has pushed the Bulldogs into top-25 contention the entire season, led by his rangy swingman, Dunham.
This year, America's favorite Cinderella story will definitely be invited to the ball, the question just becomes how favorable their seed will be. An early exit from the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden would more than likely keep their seed down, while winning their first Big East Championship would surely catapult their status.
Is Kellen Dunham the Big East Player of the Year? We will find out on Wednesday, but in the words of Coach Hahn, "The Big East has some outstanding players and teams this year, and I think it is an honor for Kellen to even be in the conversation for Player of the Year." The Midwestern humility, down to the core signifies that regardless of the outcome, Dunham will just keep on being special.