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(Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images))

Cade Cunningham gave the NBA a head start, but now he’s catching up

If you wondered why Dwane Casey lamented the sprained ankle that cost Cade Cunningham training camp and all of the preseason, the way he’s playing now – in a word, superbly – is the reason why.

Casey understood both Cunningham and the enormity of the challenge he was presenting the player general manager Troy Weaver, Casey and their inner circle decided was worthy of first Pistons overall No. 1 pick in 51 years. Both ends of that equation made training camp the ideal laboratory to accelerate the process of a rookie being groomed as his team’s chief decision-maker.

The Pistons identified Cunningham not because he could run faster or jump higher than everybody else in a prospect-loaded draft but because of his otherworldly feel for the game. If he were that first type of player, missing training camp and all of the preseason and then the first four regular-season games, too, wouldn’t have been all that big a deal.

Cunningham is a computer chip that needed vast amounts of information loaded on to it – information only gained through trial-and-error experience. The ankle sprain meant those trials came in regular-season NBA games – and against almost exclusively older players who had the added benefit of training camp to sync mind and body.

It was a head start that would have sunk the season for a good many rookies asked to serve as lead playmaker, but Cunningham’s processing ability has shrunk that timeline.

“Over time, more and more reps has allowed things to slow down more and more for me,” Cunningham said after Sunday’s game with Phoenix where he scored 21 points in 24 minutes before being ejected with two technical fouls. “I’ve seen a lot of different defenses now. I’ve played more games.”

It might at first seem counterintuitive that a player known foremost for his great feel for the game would need more time to have his impact become fully realized than players whose strengths lie elsewhere. But what is “feel,” really, other than the ability to process experiences to achieve desired outcomes – and the only way to process experiences is to, well, experience them.

To get an idea of what Cunningham lost by missing a month at a critical moment, look at his first month and then compare it to what’s happened since. From his debut on Oct. 30 through Nov. 28, Cunningham’s numbers over 15 games: 13.0 points on 33.5 percent shooting and 24.5 percent from three with 4.8 assists; in 18 games since, 17.9 points on 44.4 percent shooting and 39.6 percent from three with 5.7 assists.

And even that only tells a slice of the story. Cunningham’s sense of command is now palpable as he sizes up a defense and looks to attack at its weakest point.  Again, here’s where Cunningham’s more subtle traits require a little more experience to draw out. He can knock down threes, he can dip inside to pull up for a mid-range jumper, he can keep a defender on his hip and drag him all the way to the rim or he can lure defenders to him and find the open shooter. All it took for him to start choosing the right option more often than not was a few hundred pick-and-rolls worth of experience.

“We’re getting more and more comfortable, me and the big, with having a better chemistry. I think that’s top to bottom. Kill (Killian Hayes) is finding his groove. Sabo (Saben Lee) – I think we’re all feeding off each other and now it’s about taking the next step as a backcourt and making plays for the team. Our bigs are better and better each game. We’re going to keep on growing.”

Cunningham’s growth spurt, which coincides with the Pistons sporting a 5-4 record in January, has come while the Pistons have adapted to playing without leading scorer Jerami Grant. He and Saddiq Bey have both found themselves in situations at the end of the shot clock that would otherwise have seen Grant with the ball. Grant could be back by the end of the month or soon thereafter, giving Cunningham another option.

“Before, we did depend on Jerami, rightfully so, to get us a bucket when need be,” Casey said. “It’s helped Saddiq. It’s helped Cade in those situations to be able to create and understand the feeling late in a game, late in the shot clock with a defense that is really ramped up. When Jerami comes back, it does keep teams off balance. They can’t load up on one player.”

As Cunningham’s processing skills sharpen, watch his turnovers start decreasing. He’s had two or fewer in four of the last six games. He’s become conscious of keeping his dribble alive into the paint and is getting caught in mid-air without a backup plan less often.

“I was jump passing too much,” he said. “If you don’t find a receiver in that little window you’ve got (while in mid-air), that’s a turnover. Coaches have been on me about that and we’ve repped that out. I feel I’m getting more and more comfortable on that baseline. There’s a lot more options when you keep your dribble alive. I’m going to keep working on it.”

Casey was never really concerned about Cunningham’s career arc, only about the short-term ripple effects of giving the rest of the NBA a month’s jump when it was already going to be a challenge for a young roster being led by a 20-year-old primary ballhandler. By all indications, Cunningham has caught up to the NBA.