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Cunningham takes a leap in second Summer League game as Pistons fall to Houston

LAS VEGAS – If the careers of Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green go the way the vast majority of seasoned NBA personnel evaluators anticipate, they’ll have far more consequential meetings in the seasons ahead than their hyped Summer League matchup in the desert on a hot August night.

But fans of neither the Pistons or Houston Rockets should feel anything less than enthused about what Tuesday’s exhibition portends for their futures.

Houston wound up winning by 111-91 and the final margin can be sufficiently explained by the disparity in the 3-point shooting: While the Rockets hit 14 of 32 (43.8 percent) from the arc, the Pistons misfired their way to a 7 of 35 (20 percent). Get outscored by 21 points from the 3-point arc and lose by 20, it really is about that simple.

“That makes a huge difference,” Pistons Summer League coach and Dwane Casey assistant J.D. DuBois said. “I think the important thing for our guys is to continue to generate good, open looks. The more we can get into the paint and kick it out, regardless of the results, as long as we’re taking good shots we want guys to step into those with confidence.”

Cunningham was the exception to the doldrums. He hit 4 of 9 from the arc, leaving his teammates at a brutal 3 of 26. That also explains why Cunningham, who led the Pistons with 20 points, finished with just two assists despite setting up at least two handfuls of scoring chances.

Thomas & Mack Center on UNLV’s campus was abuzz for the marquee game of Summer League. It didn’t hurt any that Cunningham and Green guarded each other pretty much any time they were on the floor together.

“The main goal is to try to get the chemistry right with our young core and try to figure each other out,” Cunningham said. “I was just trying to play my game. I know what type of hype was around the game, but we have bigger goals and bigger fish to fry.”

The biggest takeaway for Pistons fans ought to be the way Cunningham, after one Summer League game, grew in comfort and presence from game one to game two, evidence of the basketball IQ that general manager Troy Weaver cited in making a measured comparison to legend Larry Bird on that count after deciding on Cunningham over Green and Evan Mobley with the No. 1 pick.

Cunningham’s sense of pace, vision and poise on offense and his anticipation, length and active hands on defense give him a chance to affect winning at both ends and every inch in between. He had sequences in each half where he scored, set up teammates and disrupted defensive possessions one atop the other.

“This is my second game now,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been able to be out there and see everything, feel how the game goes. I definitely needed that first game. The feeling I felt leaving that game helped me going into this game. Losing sucks – I hate losing – but I know it’s all about getting better every day and finding ways to help out the next man on the team.”

“The good part about Cade is he’s coming to an organization that has an Isaiah Stewart, a Saddiq Bey, a Killian Hayes, a Saben Lee – guys who are hard workers and have a good approach,” DuBois said. “He fits right in with those, as well.”

The Pistons surely could have used Stewart’s interior presence and toughness, but the 2020 rookie is out with a minor ankle injury suffered last month while participating with the U.S. Select Team in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. Bey had an uncharacteristically poor night from the 3-point arc, hitting just 1 of 6 though otherwise playing well and continuing to show an expanded offensive repertoire, especially off the dribble.

Hayes finished with six points and three assists, standing out more for his defensive work, and Lee, the fourth 2020-21 rookie, scored 13 points off the bench.

Rookie Luka Garza produced at a high level in 16 minutes off the bench, scoring 15 points on 5 of 6 shooting.

“He’s a confident guy and that’s what we need,” Cunningham said of the fellow rookie taken 51 spots after he was drafted first. “He’s so talented, he can get to pretty much any shot he wants to get to. Him playing with that confidence is what we like to see and what we need. He brings a different spark with his energy. I love to see it.”

Garza, for his part, marvels at the maturity and presence of Cunningham, three years his junior at 19.

“Game by game, he’s getting better. He works so hard on his game,” Garza said. “How incredible a leader he is at his age. I really respect that. I can definitely see him getting more comfortable, getting to his shots, making the right read. I know that all of us will continue to get better and work.”