INDIANAPOLIS — With headphones wrapped around his neck and a Butler jumpsuit nestled around his six-foot-6, 185-pound frame, Kellen Dunham barely resembles the incoming freshman Brian Hahn described walking into the Pendleton Heights gymnasium five summers ago.
Then, Dunham, whose family had recently moved from the Mt. Vernon school district, stood 5-10 and 120 pounds.
Now, he’s the starting shooting guard at Butler and is third on the team in scoring, averaging 11 points per game for the Bulldogs (4-2).
Through the years, while nature elevated his height and weight, Dunham nurtured his game by becoming a gym rat.
“The biggest characteristic he carries with him as a player is that he is an incredibly dedicated worker,” said Hahn, in his seventh-year at PH. “He does something to make himself a better basketball player 365 days a year.”
Growing up, Dunham couldn’t watch enough college basketball. He wasn’t necessarily a fan of Bulldog hoops, but frequented Hinkle Fieldhouse because the drive from Pendleton only lasts about 40 minutes.
Butler coach Brad Stevens didn’t promise Dunham early playing time, but did list things he could work on in order to see the court:
>>Pick up the concepts on defense. (It is Butler, after all).
>>Bring something to the table that can help you play.
One of the things Dunham has been able to do since his early days as an Arabian was shoot the ball.
During his senior season at Pendleton Heights, Dunham led the state in scoring (29.5 ppg) and free-throw shooting (92.1 percent). He made 53.2 of his 2-pointers and 45.6 percent of his 3-pointers.
Dunham scored 40 points or more three times last season, including erupting for 45 on Frankton Feb. 18. He never scored less than 18 points in a game.
Though his shooting stroke remained true, through the years Dunham honed other facets of his game.
“He really had to improve his strength, his athleticism, his ball handling, his ability to play through contact,” Hahn recalled. “He continued to get better.”
In his first game at Butler on Nov. 10 against Elon, Dunham notched 18 points off the bench, a school record for a freshman in his first game. He earned Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week honors for the performance.
“He’s going to be on the floor a ton. Whether he starts or not, he’s considered a starter in my book because the thing that Kellen gives is he’s go, go, go. He’s in terrific condition,” said Stevens of Dunham following the Elon game. “It means a lot to him. He’s just at a higher level than a lot of guys I’ve coached.
“You can play him for 17 straight minutes or 25 straight minutes or whatever the case may be…I trust him.”
Nine days later, Dunham earned his first start against Marquette in the Maui Invitational.
Thanks to Rotnei Clarke — Dunham’s backcourt mate and the all-time leading scorer in Oklahoma high school basketball — sinking a one-handed, buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the Bulldogs moved on to face North Carolina.
Yes, that North Carolina.
Dunham was competing against the guys he’d been watching on television for years.
“It was pretty crazy,” he quipped following a recent game against Hanover.
All Dunham did was help fuel Butler to a 35-18 halftime advantage vs. UNC, then tally 14 of his 17 points in the second half to stave off a furious Tar Heels’ run and ensure an 82-71 victory.
The Bulldogs arrived in Maui a day before the tournament began. They got a day to hang out, so Dunham went snorkeling.
When asked how he was able to keep his head above water and thrive in the sinking of one of college basketball’s most storied programs, Dunham deferred credit.
“My teammates found me. (UNC) left me,” he noted. “They were so focused on Rotnei and some of the other players that I got some open looks.”
Dunham is used to being the hunted.
In high school, opposing teams employed a number of defensive tactics to slow down Dunham.
Coaches refer to them as “junk” defenses.
Full-court pressure. Double teams. Box-and-one traps.
Greenfield-Central employed a triangle-and-two defense on Dunham and current Hanover guard Matt Wehner in a game last January.
When the buzzer sounded after the first quarter, Dunham had four points.
But his team led 23-2.
“Yeah, I’m done with those,” Dunham said of the junk defenses, with a knowing smile.
Dunham said he likes to joke with his teammates who don’t originate from Indiana — of the 14 players on the roster, seven are native Hoosiers — that there isn’t anyone on the team from Indiana that can’t light up the scoreboard.
Clarke, the team’s point guard and an Oklahoma native, fits that bill, too.
He averaged double-digits at Arkansas for three seasons before transferring, and scored 51 points in a game as a sophomore.
Clarke is making nearly 45 percent of his 3’s his season.
Against Hanover, chemistry between Clarke and Dunham was evident.
Whenever Dunham corrals a defensive rebound, he instinctively finds Clarke to initiate the break.
Dunham often screens for the 6-0 Clarke, who scored a game-high 13 points vs. Hanover and showed off his range by nailing a few treys from NBA range.
So who’s the better shooter?
“I think I am,” Dunham asserted. “He’s definitely a really capable shooter. (But) I think I can get him.”
Postgame, Hanover coach Jon Miller declared that the Butler-Hanover tilt had been a “big game for Pendleton, Indiana,” due to the presence of Dunham and Wehner.
Dunham and Wehner keep in touch — they were trash talking via text message leading up to the contest — and guarded each other on multiple occasions during the game.
One of the reasons Dunham chose Butler was its proximity to home. Whenever there are extra tickets available, he makes sure to grab as many as he can for his friends and family from Pendleton.
But he’s also immersed himself in his new family at Butler. The upperclassmen delegate him typical freshman chores like carrying their bags and playfully tease him.
After the Hanover game, Dunham was seated along the baseline when junior Khyle Marshall strolled by, rubbed the top of the freshman’s head and said in a fatherly tone, “little Dunham.”
“They make fun of me and say random stuff like that,” Dunham said with a laugh.
Butler is a developmental program. Former stars Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack left school early and became NBA draft picks, but the success of the team hinges on year-to-year player progression.
Stevens isn’t averaging 27.8 wins through his first five seasons by recruiting one-and-done types, but instead with four-year guys like Dunham.
“He’s in a perfect condition to get better. He has a lot of ability. Each year he’s going to get bigger, stronger, faster, improve his ability to play with the ball, defend … to make himself better in all areas,” Hahn offered. “He has the perfect coach to do that with. I look forward to seeing how much better he can become.”