The Pistons waited 51 years between No. 1 picks. Cade Cunningham hopes to make it worth the wait.
After having 37 days since winning the NBA draft lottery on June 22 to explore every option, Pistons general manager Troy Weaver settled on the Oklahoma State freshman over every other player in a star-studded draft and every trade proposal from teams clamoring for a shot at Cunningham.
“A great night for the Pistons,” Weaver said. “We’re thrilled we landed on Cade and excited about him joining the Pistons family. He was always one of the top guys we looked at, but his versatility, the leadership, the connectability was what really separated him. Look at our team, he’s a human connector – on the floor, off the floor.”
Cunningham made no secret of his desire to be picked No. 1 and became even more determined to win that honor after the Pistons won the lottery.
“I’ve been working to be the top guy for a long time,” Cunningham said from New York. “This has been a lifelong dream of mine, something I’ve been working at for a long time. When I heard Detroit had the number one pick, I was ecstatic. You never know who’s going to get it, but I knew Detroit landing that pick, I knew it was possible I was going to be in a situation I could grow in. Finally being picked and Detroit trusting me with his pick, I’m forever grateful for that. I’m excited to show what I’ve got.”
Cunningham joins a Pistons roster that includes last year’s four rookie draft picks – Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee. Bey, the 19th pick in 2020, was voted first team All-Rookie and Stewart, taken 16th, was second team All-Rookie. Hayes, the seventh pick, missed 41 games with a hip injury but finished the season in encouraging fashion and Lee, drafted with the 38th pick, played on a two-way contract but became a rotation fixture by season’s end.
“I’m excited to be able to join that young core and be able to grow with them,” Cunningham said about playing alongside Hayes, Stewart, Bey and a roster that ended the 2020-21 season with 11 players 24 or younger. “I think that’s the biggest thing. I want to hop right in and contribute to the mentality that they go into games with. They want to defend, they want to play hard and that’s what I want to come in and provide for them, as well.”
Speculation about whether the Pistons would take Cunningham over the past month often struggled to grasp how he would fit alongside Hayes, a natural point guard. But Dwane Casey relishes the opportunity to put more than one ballhandler on the floor and Weaver sees it as more advantageous than problematic to pair Cunningham with Hayes.
“Getting this guy, he and Killian can play together,” Weaver said. “He can play with any of our players. That was a big part of selecting this young man. He gives us tremendous flexibility. We need multiple ballhandlers and playmakers and he definitely is at the top of the chart for someone who can make plays. That will only enhance what Killian can do.”
“I think me stepping in will help Killian a lot and I think Killian will help me a whole lot,” Cunningham said. “I feel like we’ll take a lot of pressure off each other. Both of us are very capable primary ballhandlers and both of us are capable of playing off the ball and making things happen off the ball. I feel like it will be a good mix.”
For Weaver, the addition of a supersized playmaker, he said, will provide similar flexibility to him in roster building going forward as it does to Casey in fielding a multitude of lineup combinations.
“He can allow you to play up. he can allow you to play down,” Weaver said. “You can play him in the backcourt; you can play him in the frontcourt. He gives your roster so much flexibility. That was huge in the decision-making process and huge for the way Coach will be able to use him.”
Cunningham’s basketball intelligence was another standout quality Weaver discerned in the scouting process, bringing up Larry Bird when asked whether the perception that Cunningham was less than an elite athlete was a concern.
“He has a tremendous competitive spirit, but he’s very intelligent on the floor. The leadership, the versatility and the connectability put him over the top,” Weaver said. “He brings a lot to the table. He’s been an elite player at all levels and I think he’ll continue that because of his sharp mind. I struggle with putting the top five of all-time together without Larry Bird. He had as sharp a mind as you can see and Cunningham, his intelligence allows him to play faster and see and feel things even if he’s not a superior athlete.”
Cunningham led Oklahoma State to a 21-9 record, averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the 3-point arc in 36 minutes a game. In a March win over eventual national champion Baylor, Cunningham finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
The Naismith Player of the Year in 2020 for high school players, Cunningham starred for USA Basketball as a 17-year-old, leading the team to a gold medal at the 2019 U19 World Cup in Greece when he averaged 11.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists.
He’s had success at every level of basketball and fully expects that to continue at the game’s highest rung.
“I think it will be Cade Cunningham’s night,” he said when asked how he thought draft night would be remembered by history. “That he got drafted by the Pistons, because when people look back, that will be the start of whenever the Pistons restored their franchise and brought greatness back to the city. That’s my whole goal stepping in to Detroit, to restore that city. They’ve already had championship teams. They’ve already witnessed greatness. I want to be able to bring that back to the city.”