LAS VEGAS – When the retrospectives on Cade Cunningham’s career are crafted many years down the road, his Summer League debut will be worth barely a mention. But it constitutes the entire body of his NBA work at this point, so let the dissection of Sunday’s performance commence.
“It was fun getting to put the jersey on for the first time,” Cunningham said after a red-hot Pistons start faded into a 76-72 loss to Oklahoma City. “Obviously, we wanted a win out of this, but we spent the last week beating on each other. It’s our first time being able to get to go and be with each other and really try to get this chemistry down. We got a lot from this game we can learn from. That’s the main thing you want out of your first game. Now we’re going to try to keep building off of that.”
Cunningham was at the heart of the sizzling start, draining two quick triples as the Pistons took a 26-11 lead. It was a dazzling if brief display of basketball but enough to captivate the imagination of Pistons fans dreaming on what might be with Cunningham added to last year’s impressive rookie haul. The No. 1 overall pick – the first for the Pistons since Bob Lanier went first in 1970 – finished with 12 points, six rebounds and two assists in 26 minutes.
“Both of ’em felt good,” Cunningham said of the threes, the first a catch-and-shoot and the second a transition pull-up, both assisted by Killian Hayes. “I wanted to step into the game confident, ready to shoot, ready to play. To see the first two go down, it’s a good feeling. Now it’s building off of that. I don’t know if I hit another one.”
He didn’t, missing his last five 3-point attempts, one in the final minute that would have pulled the Pistons within a point. But he showed the versatility at both ends that ultimately won the Pistons over, scoring at the rim and in the mid-range while tacking on two steals and two blocked shots.
Summer League coach J.D. DuBois paired Hayes and Cunningham exclusively in the first half, then staggered their minutes some in the second. Saben Lee played alongside either one at times and the Pistons used all three in smaller lineups that featured Sekou Doumbouya at center with Saddiq Bey rounding out the frontcourt.
“The beauty of having multiple playmakers, like (Dwane Casey) talks about, is they both can bring it up, they both can play off the ball,” DuBois said. “They’re getting a feel for each other. They’re going to continue to grow. First game together. Look forward to seeing how they progress.”
The most experienced Pistons player, despite the fact Doumbouya has two NBA seasons under his belt, was Bey, who played 1,9000 minutes as a rookie and is coming off a turn with USA Basketball’s Select Team. Casey is pushing Bey to expand his offensive game from the player who took two-thirds of his shots from the 3-point arc last season and Bey put on display the focus of his off-season workload. He finished with 14 points and 12 boards in 31 minutes and only four of his 13 shots came from deep.
“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” he said. “My first year, not many people knew my game. I shot a lot from the perimeter. Just being able to use it to my advantage, getting inside and making plays.”
If the third first-round pick from last season, Isaiah Stewart, hadn’t been ruled out for Summer League with the ankle injury suffered while with Bey as part of the Select Team last month – and he’s fine, out of his walking boot now – it’s possible the Pistons would have had four 2021-22 regular-season starters lining up to start in Summer League. That’s another way of saying the Pistons are going to be a very young team in the season ahead.
And Cunningham and Hayes, who’ll each spend all of the 2021-22 season as 20-year-olds, figure to be the team’s primary ballhandlers. So their chemistry and their fit is going to be as important as anything that comes out of this week in Las Vegas.
“I think more than anything, we’re on the same page mentally in where we want this team to be,” Cunningham said. “Now it’s about having a better feel for each other. We haven’t played a lot together. This week (in practices), we had days where he had to sit out, I had to sit out. We haven’t played together a lot. We have so much time to build off this and grow from it. We’re not going to hang our heads off this one game.”