When Auburn wasn’t on the court, Malik Dunbar’s favorite part of Maui was the beach.
That may seem unsurprising, considering that’s all most people think of when they hear about trips to Hawaii. But as a team, Auburn men’s basketball was given extensive opportunities to explore the island. Players tweeted about the “authentic” Hawaiian rolls as the highlight meal of the trip. They took excursions to exotic, mountainous areas during the Tigers’ trip across the Pacific Ocean to the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, which included on-the-court matchups against some of the sport’s perennial powerhouses and blue-bloods such as Xavier, Arizona and Duke.
Dunbar also could have chosen his time in the spotlight on Auburn’s first night on the island as the most memorable experience. He was selected as the Tigers’ representative in learning Hula, a traditional Polynesian dance, and performing it in front of the coaches and players of each team in the tournament field. Dunbar flashed his signature ear-to-ear grin while the crowd laughed and teammates could be heard shouting, “Get it, ‘Leek!’”
But when able, Dunbar, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who hails from North Augusta, around three hours from the beaches of South Carolina, preferred the seclusion of Ka’anapali Beach while in paradise.
“I feel like it was real peaceful out there,” Dunbar said. “I like to just sit on the beach and just listen to the ocean.”
However, when he laced his orange and blue sneakers in Maui, where this writer was told the rims at the practice facility were only 9-and-a-half feet high and the humidity laid on almost unbearably thick and stuffy above the tan-brown court of the Lahaina Civic Center, Auburn’s galvanizing senior was anything but peaceful.
It took a couple of games, though.
In Auburn’s overtime win over Xavier and six-point loss to Duke, Dunbar scored just three and five points, respectively, his lowest totals of the young season. After the narrow defeat to then-No. 1 Duke, Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl was frank about the play of Dunbar and the bench.
“Jared Harper and Bryce Brown can play the whole minutes, the whole game," Pearl said after playing Duke. “Because we don’t have confidence in our bench, and that’s unfortunate.”
Led by Dunbar, the Auburn reserves absorbed those comments as pure motivation. Dunbar dropped 15 points in 17 minutes on 6-for-7 shooting from the floor in a Day 3 win over Arizona, including a ferocious tomahawk dunk in transition that sent the Auburn faithful in Maui into a frenzy.
"I get a lot of love off that one,” Dunbar said of his monster dunk. “But I got some more coming."
Thanks to the rebound effort by the bench, Auburn flew home the next day with a 2-1 record at the tournament.
“You look at the Arizona game, and our bench saved us,” said Auburn assistant coach Steven Pearl. “If we didn’t have J’Von (McCormick) and Malik and Horace (Spencer) and those guys coming off the bench, we don’t win that game.”
Two wins had been the goal Pearl set for the invitational. But Dunbar, playing in his second and final season in an Auburn jersey, took away something less tangible, yet more priceless.
"It was important,” Dunbar said of the trip to Maui. “We already like brothers as is. So it was just more like we was just going over to Hawaii as family, like a little family trip honestly, so it really helped us experience a whole ‘nother world. It was just a blessing of an experience."
Dunbar’s emphatic slam against the Wildcats summed up not only his play on the islands, but his entire 2018 season to that point. Starting with the team’s season-opening win against South Alabama, something had changed from his first year on the Plains.
He dropped 16 points out of the gate, suddenly notching his career-high at Auburn. Through nine games of nonconference play, the guard is averaging 8.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and a steal per game, shooting over 50 percent from floor. Granted, Auburn hasn’t entered a murderous SEC schedule yet, but Dunbar has still scored in double digits four times, already one more than his total from last year.
Auburn’s go-to sixth man appears to have added a deadly stroke from beyond the arc in the offseason, as well. Attribute some of that to a full year in Pearl’s offensive system.
Dunbar has attempted 32 triples through nine games, hitting at a 40-percent mark. That’s over double the attempts from this point last season (14).
He was heralded as a defensive-minded combo guard whose primary draw was athleticism in the open floor when he starred in his first two collegiate seasons at the College of Central Florida (Ocala, Fla.). But Pearl’s system is productively stubborn, and now Dunbar is settling into the Auburn coaching staff’s vision for a versatile, all-around presence off the bench.
"I think Malik has become a real valuable piece,” Pearl said. “Malik is going to his strengths and staying away from whatever weaknesses he may have. He can really shoot the basketball with great range. He can defend physically and he's worked really hard to improve defensively. He can be a very physical rebounder. He's improved in that area. The thing he's improved the most on is his assist-turnover ratio. He's just not forcing the issue.
“He's worrying more about helping the team and being efficient by going to his strengths that establishes 'Hey coach, I can do this.' 'I know you can, but we've got guys that do that better, but you know what, you do these things really, really well.' You talk about being coachable and being productive, he's got one of the better offensive efficiency ratings in the country.”
Pearl is spot-on. After going 2-for-3 from 3-point range in the team’s win over UNC Asheville on Dec. 4, Dunbar possessed the nation’s most efficient stroke — among high-major programs — on far-corner 3-point attempts. Bryce Brown owned the other corner.
Jacob Tyler, an assistant at Dunbar’s old program, pointed out the wildly efficient start. Tyler noted that when coaches recruited Dunbar out of CCF to the Division-I level, the main knock was that he couldn’t shoot.
“Well, I’d say Malik’s answered that question for those who had doubt,” Tyler said.
Granted, when Dunbar played in Ocala, his tape differed little from the player Auburn fans knew and loved last season — infectiously energetic and intimidatingly athletic, but often inefficient.
As Tim Ryan, Dunbar’s former head coach and leader of the Patriots program for 16 seasons, put it, his guard was raw and untapped. But he sure could run.
“He might not have always liked everything I said, but he’d run through a wall for you, you know?” Ryan told The Plainsman. “Just a high-energy guy all the time — and loyal.”
Ryan is unsurprised by the competitive nature Auburn fans are enjoying from Dunbar. The coach saw it every day for two years inside Patriot Gym, and couldn’t help but laugh when recalling the start of each practice there.
“You know, every single day for two years, we’d do sprints, and he never lost one sprint,” Ryan said. “He brought that kind of energy every day to practice. Not in two years did he lose a sprint. Not once. You know guys that take a day off or take a possession off, and he wasn’t like that. He wanted to win every day.”
Now with the exposure of a top-10 Southeastern Conference program on a meteoric rise in on-the-floor results, recruiting and, thus, national recognition, Dunbar takes center stage as one of No. 8 Auburn’s vocal, expressive — and sometimes musical — leaders.
Tiger fans have become accustomed to the hype videos from the athletic department’s award-winning visual production team that often feature Dunbar singing in the locker room or tunnel before games. His teammates smile and join in as his No. 4 jersey bounces around and chants with the same energy showcased on his rim-rocking dunks and chase-down blocks — a pair of Dunbar staples that have been sending the Auburn Arena crowd into delirium for over a year now.
"I bring the energy,” Dunbar said. “'Let's go ahead and get this done.’ I feel like that's my biggest role on every team is just to get us going. That's just me being myself…enjoying being out there on the floor with my teammates.”
As evidenced by his practice-time sprinting championships in Ocala and his contagiously animated persona in Auburn, Dunbar has never been much of a stickler for discomfort — even when around his soon-to-be teammates for the first time.
After a visit to Auburn during his recruiting process from CCF, Dunbar and a few Auburn players hung out in the practice gym for a while, talking over the visit and the state of the program. Dunbar was every bit his normal self — animated and confident. The current Tigers ate it up.
“It was all super relaxed...but I just remember (Dunbar) walking in and you could tell he was a man amongst boys,” a former team manager told The Plainsman. “He just looked bigger and stronger than just about everyone...when it came to the players, it really felt like he was already a part of the team. It was seamless.”
Dunbar spent part of this summer reliving a bit of his past life in the Sunshine State. He worked with Ryan, other coaches and some of his former teammates at open gym sessions.
“Just a great teammate and great athlete,” Ryan said. “His skills have gotten a lot better.”
While Dunbar never brought up his anticipation for the serenity that awaited him on the beaches of Maui, Ryan said the two talked about their expectations for Auburn’s 2018-19 team. Dunbar made sure to inquire about the Patriots’ outlook for this season, as well.
Ryan couldn’t help but well up with pride as they reminisced on Dunbar’s days in that gym.
“What I am is proud of him. But I always knew I would be proud of him,” Ryan said. “He cares about his teammates — probably to a fault. We love the kid. He’s just made us really proud in what he’s doing, and it’s no surprise. I think whatever he does, he’ll be successful.”
Story photos, in order of appearance:
1. Malik Dunbar (4) dunks during Auburn basketball vs. Arizona on Nov. 21, 2018, in Maui (Al Sermeno/Auburn Athletics).
2. Malik Dunbar (4) during Auburn basketball vs. Arizona on Nov. 21, 2018, in Maui (Al Sermeno/Auburn Athletics).
3. Malik Dunbar (4) dunks during Auburn basketball vs. UNC Asheville on Dec. 4, 2018, in Auburn, Ala. (Joshua Fisher/Photographer).
4. Malik Dunbar (4) before Auburn vs. South Alabama on Nov. 6, 2018, in Auburn, Ala. (Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics).