Dante Cunningham defends against San Antonio guard Cory Joseph

Dante Cunningham providing hustle, defense, timely scoring off bench for New Orleans

by Jim Eichenhofer

New Orleans racked up 44 baskets during a blowout win over Houston last week, including several highlight-reel dunks, but perhaps the biggest cheer inside the Smoothie King Center came on a first-half defensive play. Manned up against Rockets All-Star guard James Harden in the right corner, Pelicans reserve forward Dante Cunningham poked the ball away, dove on the floor, grabbed the ball and called a heads-up timeout. The sellout crowd of 17,705 roared its approval.

“Hitting the floor, it’s something that’s not too common in the NBA, but when you do it, it does make a stand and a good staple on the game,” Cunningham later described of his all-out hustle.

“I thought (it was) the signature play for the game,” Pelicans fifth-year head coach Monty Williams said. “We haven’t had that type of edge from a wing position in a while. When you make plays like that, it gets our fans involved, our bench involved and gets us going a bit.”

Cunningham only signed with New Orleans a month ago, but the sixth-year NBA veteran has often made plays like the Harden steal, igniting New Orleans fans and energizing his team. The Pelicans’ bench was off to a shaky start through the first month of the regular season, but the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder helped stabilize and improve the unit. He’s averaging 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds in 23.1 minutes per game, but his value goes beyond statistics, particularly at the defensive end. Although he’s played 66 percent of his NBA minutes at power forward (according to Basketball-Reference.com), Cunningham’s quick feet and athleticism allow him to guard a range of other positions, from shooting guard to center. That’s why when he’s assigned to or switched onto a player like all-pro Harden, it’s not a mismatch. Cunningham also saw time in the recent San Antonio games against dynamic and crafty shooting guard Manu Ginobili.

“He doesn’t back down,” Williams said of Cunningham’s willingness to take on difficult assignments. “He gives us so many intangibles that you don’t teach. We appreciate what he brings to the table.”

“Dante has been hustling,” Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis said. “That’s what we need. We need (the bench) to come out and play like that every night. In case (the starters) have a bad start, they come in and get us going. Especially with Dante, his energy and effort, and he’s able to guard multiple positions.”

Cunningham has been a respected reserve throughout his NBA career, playing nearly all of it in the Western Conference as a steady contributor who averages about 20 minutes per game. It would be a mistake to describe him only as a blue-collar type who scraps for loose balls. Cunningham is a career 47.7 percent shooter from the field, never shooting below 46.2 percent in a season. He’s shooting a career-high 53.7 percent in 2014-15.

“We looked at him as an energy guy; he can defend; he does things you don’t teach,” Williams said. “But he’s capable of knocking down that 15- or 18-footer. He doesn’t always get the opportunities, but we know he can knock down those shots.”

For his part, the 27-year-old Villanova product is focused on contributing in any way to help New Orleans win games. If the Pelicans make the playoffs, it will be Cunningham’s first postseason appearances since 2012 with Memphis. He spent the past two seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“The best part is being able to come in and either maintain or pick up the level of intensity on the court,” Cunningham said of his role as a sub. “That just gives our first unit a chance to know that we’ve got the game under control. That’s definitely a staple of a great team. We’re trying to make our move and be a great team, a playoff team.”

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