Dante Cunningham tries to drive past Golden State's Stephen Curry during the playoffs

Dante Cunningham projected to start for Pelicans at small forward while Quincy Pondexter is sidelined

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Dante Cunningham is listed by much pretty much everyone as an NBA power forward, which is only logical because the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder has logged 61 percent of his career minutes at the “four” position, according to Basketball-Reference.com. However, on a New Orleans Pelicans roster that includes All-NBA power forward Anthony Davis and quality reserve Ryan Anderson, last season Cunningham spent 73 percent of his court time at small forward. That experience will come in handy for Cunningham in 2015-16, because with Quincy Pondexter (left knee surgery) not expected to be available until November, the Villanova product will likely be the early starter at the wing position.

“Dante Cunningham is going to be our three until Quincy gets healthy,” Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry said Thursday, at a dinner with the city’s new 3-Point Club. “He’ll probably start.”

Partly in preparation for the role, but also in anticipation of Gentry taking over the helm, Cunningham has been working on increasing his shooting range. The 28-year-old has made just two three-pointers in his six-year NBA career, but this summer he’s focused on attempts from the corners, which are the shortest-distance treys.

“The confidence of just being at (small forward) more,” Cunningham said on Thursday’s Black & Blue Report, when asked what’s different for him entering 2015-16. “Corner threes, I’ve been shooting those all summer long, getting the confidence in that. Now I’ve just got to translate it to the game.”

A blue-collar rebounder and hustle guy, Cunningham is also an efficient offensive player, shooting 47.2 percent from the field in his career. He’s been most dangerous a step or so inside the arc, taking more than half of his shots from a distance of 16-23 feet. Last season he shot 42.6 percent from that shooting interval, according to Basketball-Reference.com (by comparison, Davis shot 41.9 percent there).

In addition to adding depth to his perimeter jumper, Cunningham gave himself less postseason rest than in previous years, partly due to his excitement for the upcoming season.

“This past offseason was slightly different from my previous ones,” he said. “I took all of two weeks off. Two weeks to just kind of sit and let my body heal – you have to do that. Other than that, I played three times a week and did lots of yoga (participating in a weekly Wednesday class). I did some mixed martial arts, which is really big out in Portland. It was really fun.”

For much of September, Cunningham and numerous Pelicans teammates have held voluntary workouts at the team’s Metairie practice facility. Cunningham said New Orleans is eager to take another step after reaching the playoffs by winning Game 82 of the regular season in April.

“It’s the energy, that same vibe from last year at the end of the year, when we were making the push,” he said. “The energy is still flowing through us and we feel it every day on the court.

“Sky’s the limit (for the Pelicans). It’s scary to see the drive that this team has right now. The guys all volunteered to come back and we’ve been here for two or three weeks. That’s unheard of, as a team to have everyone here working (so early).”

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