DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 25: Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons walks on to the court before the game against the Denver Nuggets on January 25, 2022 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

There’s ‘a special one here in Detroit’ and Cade Cunningham is just getting started

Stare at one object interminably, eyes cross and perspective becomes badly skewed. It helps to get someone else’s opinion. If you’ve been fixated on Cade Cunningham since the moment the Pistons won the lottery last June, maybe you wonder what others see as his rookie year unfolds.

Well, here’s one relevant perspective: “Cade Cunningham, what a helluva player,” Denver coach Mike Malone said after the rookie nearly took down his team Tuesday night. “Had a game tonight. Showed you why he was such a high pick – scoring, rebounding, playmaking. That kid’s future is very, very bright. They got a special one here in Detroit.”

And that’s a guy who coaches the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic, so Malone knows what special looks like.

That it was surprising but not shocking to see Cunningham trade blows with Jokic as if they were peers in Tuesday’s eventual 110-105 Denver win at Little Caesars Arena speaks volumes about how quickly the Pistons rookie has skipped rungs on the NBA ladder.

Cunningham doesn’t really have to pinch himself to believe it was him doing that – going toe to toe with an MVP – and that’s a window into why the Pistons settled on him when they won the lottery. There’s an air of supreme self-confidence about Cunningham that somehow never verges into arrogance or delusion.

“I’ve imagined these moments so much that I don’t feel out of place whenever I’m out there,” he said Tuesday after arguably his best game – and that it’s not conclusively his best is the reason why he’s gaining steam in the Rookie of the Year race after ceding early momentum to Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes while recovering from the early-season ankle injury. “Nothing feels fake to me. Just being in the moment after dreaming about it for so long.”

Seems like not a week goes by where Cunningham doesn’t have a game that unearths some startling comparison. From Tuesday’s game, we got this: He became the second NBA rookie ever to put up at least 34 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four blocked shots in a game. The other? Some guy named Jordan. The list of players, rookie or otherwise, who did all that and also registered two steals? Cade Cunningham. That’s the list.

There’s a lot that hasn’t gone right for the Pistons this year, starting with the injuries that knocked out their two most accomplished NBA players, Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk, for long stretches. But even if the list of what went right at season’s end only contained one item – and it won’t – then as long as that item is “Cade Cunningham has proven himself a worthy No. 1 pick,” all is well with the Pistons, now and for many tomorrows.

Remember when Troy Weaver was pressed on his winnowing process last July after the pick was made?

“His versatility, the leadership, the connectability was what really separated him,” the Pistons general manager said. “He’s a human connector – on the floor, off the floor.”

To translate that into something a little more tangible now that the evidence is coming in, here’s what Cunningham said Tuesday night when asked what pleased him most about his first season in the NBA to date.

“I’m happy with how much my teammates trust me with the ball more than anything. They want me to make plays for us. They want me to be aggressive. And I’ve worked really hard to get where I’m at in basketball, so to have guys trust me with the ball and trust the work I put in means a lot to me.”

A lot to unpack there. It’s a great response, to be sure. But it’s a better response if it’s from a place of sincerity and, by all objective interpretations, it is. It’s at the heart of what Weaver kept hearing about Cunningham as he sought the answer to which of the bevy of potential face-of-the-franchise prospects was the right one to take for the Pistons at No. 1. Cunningham didn’t just have the talent to be an NBA team’s best player, he had the necessary stew of qualities to make a forceful and effective leader.

Him saying “to have the guys trust me with the ball and trust the work I put in means a lot to me” screams with the promise of a superstar in the making who knows a great leader can’t lead without willing followers.

It also speaks to Cunningham’s comfort at being in the glare. Sometimes – more often than you could imagine – that’s not the case with the most talented players. The spotlight comes with equal parts adulation and criticism. A healthy percentage of superstar-level talents only are interested in half of that equation.

It’s rare enough when elite talent pairs with unvarnished ambition. When it’s rounded out by basketball IQ, genuine leadership skills and keen self-awareness, you’ve got the recipe for greatness. Mike Malone is on the nose. There’s a special one here in Detroit.