I don’t have the exact statistics handy, but I’m sure of this: the NBA is a code that’s damn near impossible to crack. Of the thousands of potential prospects in collegiate competition and foreign clubs around the world, there are still only 60 draft slots available each June.
For some, seeing their replica jersey adorn store shelves has been a foregone conclusion since middle school, while others have taken a more unconventional route through minor league lineups and 10-day contracts. But whatever path is ultimately taken to the NBA, it’s undoubtedly filled with its share of surprises, sidetracks and lucky moments.
For 21-year-old Michael Dunigan, surprises have defined his path as of late, as he works toward that next lucky moment in his career.
It wasn’t too long ago that I first caught wind of Dunigan â€“ a 6-10 bruiser now three years removed from Farragut Career Academy in Chicago â€“ deciding to take his Midwestern talents straight to the Pacific Northwest and the University of Oregon in 2008. He was a McDonald’s All American and legit power post presence on the frontline. The kid’s potential was salivating to put it lightly and in a guard-heavy Pac-10, it was widely considered that the Ducks held the conference’s elite center prospect.
Two years into his stay in Eugene, Dunigan was dropping a modest 9.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game as a sophomore, while anchoring the team’s frontcourt on both ends. The Ducks meanwhile, finished the season going just 16-16 on the year. As the supporting fan base battled its own impatience, the real uncertainty, however, lay inside of the locker room. Oregon ultimately opted to part ways with its then longtime head coach Ernie Kent, eventually leading to current head coach Dana Altman‘s hiring following a publicly drawn out search.
As the Ducks moved on from Kent and towards a different future with Altman, the program found itself in brief disarray, as five active players chose to leave the UO, including Dunigan. And after playing only two seasons for the green and yellow, Dunigan suddenly decided to end his campus hoop days last September in favor of a more untested route: Jerusalem.
Similar to how fellow 2011 Draft hopeful Jeremy Tyler left school as a high school junior to pursue pro ball overseas the year prior, Dunigan felt leaving early would give him the best basketball opportunity moving forward. Still, even many months later, he seems very hesitant to elaborate at all on the Oregon situation.
“It was a family decision. Nothing more, nothing less,” says Dunigan.
By turning pro early, Dunigan has been automatically placed in this year’s draft class. After leaving Oregon, he originally opted to sign with Hapoel Migdal in Jerusalem. Yet after seeing only one minute of action, he decided his talents would best be developed by moving once again, to Estonia â€“ a place even he’s admitted he didn’t know previously existed.
So that’s where Dunigan has been putting in work over the last few months, for BC Kalev/Cramo in Tallinn, Estonia. In just 22 minutes a game, he’s averaged 11.1 points, 8.0 boards and 1.4 blocks per, while leading his club to the Estonian League Championship. He’s dropped some extra weight and has refined his offensive post game, which is still most comfortable in back-to-the-basket situations. More importantly, Dunigan’s kept a level head and has thrived his new surroundings. Meanwhile, he’s had to adapt to life in Eastern Europe by himself â€“ no family or friends accompanied him along. In fact, he says it was his first time out of the country in any capacity.
“It wasn’t really a big culture shock; I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” says Dunigan on his initial assessment of Estonia. “Besides me having to figure out how to get food, it wasn’t a big deal.
“For a person that hates flying, but loves to travel, it was pretty sweet. Got to see a lot of things that most people at my age don’t get to see. Different people, different food, different languages and different landscapes, buildings and stuff; it was pretty cool.”
Now fresh off of his Euro travels, Dunigan is back in the States and training with hoops guru Tim Grover at Attack Athletics in Chicago. He was also a last-minute inclusion in the NBA Draft Combine last week and was able to show everyone in attendance his rapid improvement. At the combine, Dunigan was grilled on everything from traveling overseas to ball handling. For all of his still raw potential and outlook, he shows a lot of maturity and has handled himself well in interviews.
“Well, we all have our bumps in the road,” he says a few days after the Chicago combine’s end. “You know some people have different ways of going to the League; some people just leave out of high school, some people go first year in college, some people do four years in college, some people leave early and go professionally overseas. This is my way and I just make the best of it the best way I can.”
It’s definitely not the road he must have originally envisioned coming out of high school, but Dunigan has made the best of his opportunities. Whereas it’s easy to point the finger that he underachieved while in college, Europe has made Dunigan a stronger player. At 6-10, he’s a big body with long arms and has good shot blocking instincts. In the League, he’ll be asked to provide a stronger presence on the defensive end â€“ something he’s continuing to craft. He also knows there’s still a long way to go to be the player that both he and NBA teams are hoping he’ll develop into. And if that means continuing to hoop across the pond for a little while longer, teams know Dunigan can handle himself. That doesn’t mean he’s complacent with just being drafted, though.
“I’m trying to make some noise,” says Dunigan about making a potential splash in the League this season. “I want to be a player to come in and play. I want to be like a small role player â€“ I’m not coming in being a real impact player, like, I don’t know, like an Amar’e Stoudemire type â€“ you know. I know I’m not going to be like that my first year, but that’s something that I aspire to as I get older and move my way up into the League.
“Growing up, I always looked at Kevin Garnett,” he says about whose game he modeled after as a youth. “He’s always the guy that plays the four and the five a little bit. He’s always inside (outside) and he also had the finesse around the basket with his face-up game.”
That doesn’t mean Dunigan will find himself star struck at the thought of possibly matching up with his hoops hero, and fellow Farragut alum, one day.
“I wouldn’t say star struck. (Garnett’s) a player and he likes to compete and I’m going to compete against him.”
For now, Dunigan will have to compete against himself and the rest of the big man crop hoping for a chance to do the same thing he is: impress a team. It only takes one coach, one GM or one scout to see the same potential impact player that he sees in himself. In most mock drafts so far, he’s listed as a late second-round pick and in some cases, left off the big board entirely. Yet it doesn’t faze Dunigan in the slightest. At the end of the day, whatever happens on that late-June night in Madison Square Garden is just another surprise awaiting him on his journey.
Nothing more, nothing less.
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