Compared to the other rookies, the top overall picks face the most pressure in their first few seasons. The pressure to win and turn a franchise around is on their shoulders, regardless if they can control the situation or not. Magic Johnson and LeBron James were able to bring or sustain winning with their respective franchises, while Michael Olowokandi and Anthony Bennett just couldn’t get off the ground running.
Cade Cunningham, this year’s first overall pick, missed five of his first six games after suffering a right ankle injury during training camp with the Detroit Pistons. This forced him to the sidelines as peers like Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes made instant impacts on their respective squads and drew rave reviews for their performances.
However, NBA careers are marathons and not sprints, especially for lottery picks like Cunningham. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy thus paid no attention to how others were viewing his fellow rookies and instead focused on getting back on the court. Now that the injury is behind him, he has gotten better after each game while also growing accustomed to his teammates.
In the Pistons’ 129-107 loss to the Sacramento Kings, Cunningham finished with a career-high 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and two steals. It was easily his best game of the season as he made half of his field goal attempts and knocked down five of his 11 shot attempts from behind the three-point line.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough as the Kings blew past Detroit with a solid offensive game that saw Sacramento having shooting splits of .531./.485/.818 by the end of the game. The Kings’ starters all finished in double-figures, but it was Buddy’s Hield’s team-high 22 points on six three-pointers that hurt the Pistons the most. Meanwhile, only Cunningham and Saddiq Bey (28 points) scored in double-figures for Detroit.
Sure, it was unfortunate that it came in a loss, but the Pistons are playing the long game here and they would rather see progress at this point from their franchise cornerstone. Wins may not come in bunches for Cunningham and Detroit this season, but they are certainly happy with the strides made in terms of player development, especially given that they have the fourth-youngest roster (24.1 years of age) and a starting lineup with an average age of 22.25.
After his solid individual performance against Sacramento, Cunningham’s averages now stand at 13.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and a steal in 30.0 minutes of play over eight games. His shooting percentages from the field and behind the three point line leave a lot to be desired and this largely stems from him working his way back from his right ankle injury. The Texas native has only missed one free throw this season, but it would be more effective if he can get to the line more.
Cunningham’s chemistry with his teammates has also been developing with each passing game. He can make the pass off the pick-and-roll, while on the fastbreak, and can easily locate shooters by dishing the extra pass. As of late, he has been able to create opportunities for big men Isaiah Stewart and Luka Garza, drawing enough of the defense to give them easy baskets.
Shooting percentages aside, Cunningham’s ability to change pace and keep his dribble alive make it harder for the defense to determine if he will pass the ball or look for his shot. As he gets more game experience in, his shot selection will improve and stun defenses (and teammates like Garza) such as in plays like this:
Defense will be another area Cunningham needs to improve on, and this will be doubly harder while he manages getting his ankle back to 100 percent. Against the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox, he had to deal with the quickness and change of pace, while also trying to ensure that he doesn’t get blown by or overpowered. Each night will pit him against the likes of Trae Young, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, and Steph Curry, all of whom will challenge him in different ways.
Cunningham and the Pistons will have a few days of rest before taking on the Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat, and the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks. The next few games do seem like Detroit will be facing the Murderers’ Row, but the experience they gain will be useful especially later on in the season.
Year One for Cade Cunningham had a rough start, but the early returns post-injury have been promising. Rome wasn’t built in a day and patience is something the Detroit Pistons have preached in the development of Cunningham this season. Anyway, good things come to those who wait.