Just as the Pistons spent the past month learning everything they could about Cade Cunningham, so did the player tabbed nearly universally as the rightful No. 1 pick spend time since the June 22 lottery envisioning himself tugging on a Pistons jersey.
“I love Detroit,” Cunningham, who indeed was drafted No. 1 in Thursday night’s NBA draft, said last week after being hosted by the Pistons for his predraft workout.
“I’ve already been listening to Detroit music way before the draft lottery, any of that stuff. I was already hip to the culture in Detroit. It’s a city that has a lot of things going on. Getting the sports teams rolling again would be huge for the city. If Detroit picks me, that’s the main thing I’m going to try to do is step in and embody the swag that people from Detroit, Michigan walk with.”
The Pistons never publicly tipped their hand, keeping all options open and entertaining trade offers from teams clamoring for the chance to draft the 6-foot-8 Cunningham, regarded as one of the most advanced and complete prospects to come to the NBA in a generation. There were three or four other players who might have gone No. 1 in another year, including explosive guard Jalen Green and mobile 7-footer Evan Mobley, but in the end the appeal of Cunningham was too strong to tempt the Pistons into any other scenario.
Cunningham joins Hall of Famer Bob Lanier (1970) and Jimmy Walker (1967) as the only players in franchise history drafted by the Pistons at No. 1. When the Pistons won the No. 1 pick last month, it was the first time since the lottery was introduced in 1985 and the first time they’d moved up in the lottery in their 14 appearances.
Cunningham only agreed to visit the Pistons, underscoring his belief that he was destined to be the top pick in a loaded draft class.
“I wanted to meet with the team that had the number one pick because I feel like I’m the number one pick,” Cunningham said. “I met with Detroit.”
Cunningham came away from that visit excited by the prospect of joining a team where he’ll fit in with last year’s four drafted rookies – Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee – as part of a roster that ended the 2020-21 season with 11 players 24 or younger.
“The organization has a lot of great people within it, starting with the owner (Tom Gores),” Cunningham said. “Troy Weaver’s a great general manager. And then all the way down. They’ve got just great people throughout. I learned a lot on my visit and if they take me I’ll be excited to be there.”
Cunningham grew up in the Dallas area and spent his first two high school seasons on the varsity at Arlington Bowie High School before emerging as a nationally elite prospect and spending his final two seasons at prep power Montverde Academy in Florida, where the bounty of talent allowed Cunningham to play point guard. Among his teammates for the team Cunningham led to an undefeated season in 2019 were two players widely expected to join him as lottery picks, Scottie Barnes and Moses Moody, in addition to a fourth expected first-round pick, Day’Ron Sharpe.
“What stood out was that, even though he was playing with all these other great players, he still looked like the best player,” said Eric Bossi, basketball director of recruiting for 247Sports.
Cunningham was named the high school Naismith Player of the Year in 2020, adding to the long list of honors and achievements. On the summer circuit, Cunningham was the Nike EYBL MVP after averaging 25.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists in the summer between his junior and senior seasons. For USA Basketball, Cunningham as a 17-year-old starred for the U19 men’s team that won the 2019 World Cup in Greece, averaging 11.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists while playing with mostly older players.
It’s his playmaking ability at 6-foot-8 – with a 7-foot-1 wingspan – that separates Cunningham from his peers.
“I take a lot of pride in playmaking,” Cunningham said. “Any time I watch basketball or just watching a player, I feel like their playmaking ability shows how much they know the game and their feel for the game. If you can make plays for your team and put your teammates in winning positions, you can always find playing time. I take a lot of pride in it and feel like it’s a huge skill. I’m only going to try to get better at it.”
Cunningham’s introduction to the NBA will come at Las Vegas Summer League, which runs August 8-17. He’ll be joined there by an unusual number of players who’ll be his teammates on the 2021-22 Pistons, a reflection of the youth of Detroit’s roster. He’s probably already imagined what it will be like to line up alongside Hayes in the backcourt and to find Bey for open 3-pointers or Stewart for lob dunks. It’s fair to guess that Pistons fans have imagined the same thing – and they let Cunningham know their desires for draft night when he attended a Tigers game at Comerica Park along with Dwane Casey and Bey during his visit.
“That was cool,” he said of the “We want Cade!” chants that echoed through the stadium just south on Woodward Avenue of Little Caesars Arena, where Cunningham will play his home games. “They showed a lot of love throughout, when I’m walking through the city, walking through the stadium, they showed a lot of love. That kind of stuff means a lot. Being from Arlington and all the way out in Detroit, to hear ‘We want Cade!’ – that kind of stuff kind of gives me the chills.”
And now it will be Cade Cunningham’s time to provide chills to Pistons fans.