It is inevitable that Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, the top two picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, will be linked to one another for the rest of their careers.
The Detroit Pistons selected Cunningham first overall, but there was a considerable case for Green to be the choice there as well. Green himself was vocal in the lead up to the draft about his belief that he deserved to be the Pistons’ selection. He eventually went second to the Houston Rockets, but he let Detroit know on draft night that he is not going to take this perceived snub lightly which will only fuel this budding rivalry.
What makes any meeting on the court between these two highly-touted prospects even more exciting is that they are both tall perimeter players and can conceivably match up with one another. They kicked off what promises to be successful professional careers in the NBA Summer League at Las Vegas where they faced off for the first time since draft night. True enough, they defended each other on multiple occasions throughout their first encounter, turning the match into a legitimate showdown between the two rookies.
Green’s Houston Rockets recovered from a sluggish start and stormed to a 111-91 win over the Pistons, and improved to 2-0 while Detroit stumbled to 0-2.
For the second consecutive game, the 6’6 Green was brilliant for the Rockets, finishing with 25 points, five rebounds, and three assists. His most memorable moment came late in the fourth quarter when he hit a three-pointer with Cunningham in his face to extend the Houston lead to 18 points. He added some spice to the rivalry after sinking the shot, barking at his counterpart before making his way back down the court.
Green also tallied an equally impressive 23 points, five rebounds, and two assists in their previous game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the third overall pick Evan Mobley. Through two Summer League games with Houston, the Filipino-American guard has shown the potential to become an elite three-level scorer in the NBA. During his time with the G League Ignite, his scoring talents drew favorable, albeit lofty, comparisons to former Rocket James Harden and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards.
The 19-year-old has responded to his critics, who cited his inconsistent shooting as his biggest weakness coming into the draft, at least for the time being. Over the Rockets’ first two games, Green has shot 15 of 29 from the field and made seven three pointers on 14 attempts. The mechanics of his jumper have looked smooth so far and his elite athleticism continues to allow him to finish at the rim despite his lean frame, yet this will not be as easy for him versus NBA veterans come the regular season.
Green has made 92% of his free throws and while it is too early to determine whether this is a blip or the new normal for him, the early returns on his improved shooting are promising. He has also shown a promising willingness and ability to move off the ball though his passing and playmaking skills still have a ways to go before he can be considered a complete player on offense.
Meanwhile, Cunningham’s team may have been blown out, but the number one overall pick did not disappoint. He scored 20 points together with four rebounds, two assists, three steals, and a block, bouncing back from a quiet Summer League debut where he had just 12 points.
Cunningham has struggled from the field in his first two games, making just 13 of his 35 shots, and he has also recorded more turnovers (nine) than assists (four). The paltry shooting numbers so far should not be over-scrutinized as he is not a score-first player like Green and is more of a point guard despite his 6’8 frame.
Coming into the draft, Cunningham was advertised as a player with an elite feel for the game which is something that will take time for him to acclimate to as he transitions to the NBA level. As he gains rapport and builds chemistry with his new teammates while getting up to speed with the pace of the NBA game, his play should only improve by leaps and bounds.
The growing pains have not been as challenging on defense, with the former Oklahoma State Cowboy tallying five steals and three blocks over two games. At his size, he will have the ability to be a game-changer for the Pistons as a defender in the mold of Ben Simmons with the Philadelphia 76ers.
He may not be as athletic as Simmons, so Cunningham makes up for it with his high basketball IQ and the mere fact that he is willing to shoot already puts him in a prime position to quickly become a more valuable commodity around the league.
Taking this into consideration, it may take time for us to see the best version of Cunningham, but if he is able to fulfill his potential, the Pistons may find themselves relevant once again for the first time in over a decade.
The sames goes for Green, even with his strong showing in the Summer League so far. His frame is far from NBA-ready and it will take some time for him to grow stronger, though once his body matures, he has all the tools to become one of the league’s premier scorers.
Their first match-up at Summer League was touted as the beginning of a new rivalry and both players did not disappoint, coming up with big lines amidst the hype. Green may have drawn first blood, but all indications have shown that Cunningham isn’t the type of guy who backs down.
The future of the NBA is bright and these two young players are at the forefront of the next generation as the league celebrates its 75th year and pushes towards the century mark.