Making big shots at critical moments is the through-line in NBA history that links the game’s all-time great players. Whether Cade Cunningham eventually joins that exclusive club or not will be determined by big shots in far bigger games than his third Summer League outing. But it’s a trait he’s exhibited at all levels of basketball to this point and he crossed another level off that list with his effort in Friday’s 93-87 win over the New York Knicks.
“Any time the game is close or in crunch time,” Cunningham said after scoring 24 points and knocking down 7 of 10 from the 3-point line, “I kind of feel like a magnet from my hands to the ball. I want the ball in my hands. My teammates trust me. I’m going to keep bragging on my teammates. It was a big-time win and that’s what we needed.”
The wire-to-wire win was characterized by Pistons leads being challenged by Knicks comebacks. Those leads were largely built when Cunningham was on the floor and the comebacks halted when he returned from turns on the bench. That explains how the Pistons outscored the Knicks by 23 points with Cunningham on the court but were outscored by 17 in the 12 minutes he sat.
When the Knicks whittled a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to nine with a 14-2 run, it was Cunningham with a huge triple with 4:31 to play that quelled the rally.
“There’s a reason we drafted him at one,” Pistons Summer League coach and Dwane Casey assistant J.D. DuBois said after Cunningham’s clutch performance. “His ability to do multiple things, his ability to make tough shots, to want the ball. His leadership, both with his voice and his actions. He prepares at a high level every day. When you see him perform like this, you’re not shocked. He works really hard at it on a consistent basis.”
It wasn’t Cunningham that got the Pistons off to their third straight fast start to open Summer League, but a rookie at the opposite end of the expectations spectrum – undrafted Georgetown senior Jamarko Pickett. Pickett scored 11 early points and finished with 18, going 4 of 4 from the 3-point line on a night the Pistons hit 18 of 36.
Pickett was one of two new starters to the lineup, stepping into the spot vacated by Sekou Doumbouya, who left the team to attend to a family matter. He won’t play in the final two Summer League games. The other first-time starter was 52nd overall pick Luka Garza, whose impressive run through Las Vegas continued with 10 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks and three assists in 25 minutes.
The Knicks Summer League lineup included two players who had roles for the team that was the East’s No. 4 playoff seed, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. Eighteen Pistons turnovers allowed the Knicks to stay on the fringe of contention even as they were held to 36 percent shooting and 28 percent from the 3-point arc, but the Pistons managed to prevent a final comeback when New York went to full-court pressure in the closing stretch.
“It was important, for sure,” Saddiq Bey said of not cracking to pick up the first Summer League win. “We started off all three games pretty well. It was about sustaining. We did a good job for 3½ quarters and then at the end kind of let it slip. The important thing was learning about keeping our poise and executing down the stretch. Those experiences we do need so we can be ready.”
Bey, who logged 1,900 minutes as an NBA rookie, continues to use Summer League to broaden his impact beyond 3-point shooting, which he did at 38 percent on high volume in earning first-team All-Rookie. He finished with 15 points, a team-best 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, including a big one against Quickley with 10 seconds to play. Bey seems destined to greatly enjoy the playmaking, spacing and clutch ability Cunningham brings to his side.
“Confident player, confident shooter. We needed that,” Bey said. “He’s good. He can play at all three levels. It was exciting to see him show what he can do. He’s a great young leader. You can tell he has that leadership quality about him and it’s natural. He doesn’t force it. It’s great to be around as a young guy.”
Cunningham has long been envisioned as a player his NBA team would want to have the ball in his hands to make big plays at pressurized moments. That he’s already gone about proving it in his third Summer League game is in line with the glowing appraisals of his unique blend of skill and poise.
“I’ve been playing for a long time,” the 19-year-old said. “Whenever it gets to those times, I kind of feel it and just want to be an outlet for my team. I want to be the guy who can be leaned on and be trusted. You’ve got to be brave in those times, step up and go get the ball. I wanted to be the guy to show my team that I was up for the challenge and make a play.”