When the Pistons won the No. 1 pick last June and outsiders debated how they should spend it, one of the arguments against taking Cade Cunningham was the fact they’d drafted Killian Hayes in the lottery just seven months earlier. Nobody said they couldn’t work together, only that it wasn’t easy to imagine the fit.
Well, Cunningham and Hayes are making it a lot easier to envision these days.
“They play off each other. They’re good for each other,” Dwane Casey said after the 20-year-olds helped the Pistons throw a scare into the Phoenix Suns on their way to a franchise-record 18thstraight win, 114-103. “They’re doing a great job of playing off each other and that’s something Pistons fans should get used to for a long time.”
Cunningham, despite picking up three fouls in the first six minutes and getting a lesson in the art of drawing them from a master in Chris Paul, had his second straight eyebrow-raising game. After scoring a season-high 26 points on 13 shots at Portland 48 hours earlier, Cunningham followed up with 19 points on 15 shots. He’s made 8 of 12 from the 3-point arc in those games and pushed his season mark from three up to 28.6 percent after bumping along below 25 percent until this week.
Hayes finished with 10 points, hitting 4 of 9 shots and 2 of 4 from the arc, to go with six rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and a single turnover in 33 minutes. He’s among the league leaders in deflected passes, too, and Hayes can guard any variety of perimeter player. On Thursday, his primary responsibility was guarding Paul, the only player in NBA history with 20,000 points and 10,000 assists on his resume.
“It was a learning experience for (Cunningham) and I thought he learned from it,” Casey said. “That’s the great thing about Cade. He’s a quick learner. Even if some of the lessons are painful, you learn from it. That’s where he and Killian both, I thought they grew up tonight going up against one of the best pick-and-roll guys and one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league. And a lot of it is because of Chris Paul’s play.”
In the end, perhaps the best testament to how well Cunningham and Hayes played – both wound up in the black in plus-minus, Cunningham plus-5 in 32 minutes and Hayes plus-8 in 33 – was that Paul had to take over a game late in order for Phoenix to keep its win streak alive against the young Pistons, who took a seven-game losing streak into the game and were finishing off a five-game, 10-day road trip.
After the Pistons pulled within five points with 2:57 left on a Saddiq Bey triple, Paul – who took just seven shots but finished with a double-double, 12 points and 12 assists – knocked down a jump shot and then set up triples for Landry Shamet and Cameron Johnson on consecutive possessions.
The Pistons got another big game from Jerami Grant with 34 points on 19 shots and the second straight double-double from Isaiah Stewart with 12 points (6 of 7, including a pair of jump shots) and 14 rebounds.
The Pistons began the night where they’ve been virtually all season in 3-point shooting, 30th, at 29.5 percent. But it’s not a coincidence that as their young backcourt is finding a comfort zone, they’re showing signs of pulling that up, too. They hit 11 of 27 (40.7 percent) in the loss at Phoenix.
Cunningham’s recognition in sizing up defenses and sensing where to attack is clearly expanding and with it comes a higher quality of shot attempts.
“He’s getting better every game,” Grant said. “Getting more experience and he’s learning, picking his spots – when to be aggressive and when to move the ball.”
It’s probably been pretty easy to spot, but Casey confirmed before the game that, yes, they’ve made the move to install Cunningham as the primary creator and given Hayes more opportunity to play off of the ball where his blossoming catch-and-shoot ability and his vision as a secondary playmaker plays up.
“Right now, Cade is our primary ballhandler where before it was Killian,” Casey said, going on to say that as Cunningham – who played just his 17th NBA game after missing all of training camp and preseason – becomes more comfortable, the offense can be modified to suit his strengths.
Amid a winless road trip, the synergy possible in a Cunningham-Hayes pairing was absolutely the most encouraging development of the season to date. And as Casey observes their growth, he’ll start tinkering and incorporating things that help amplify that synergy.
“They play off each other. We’re kind of getting a better feel for what we can run with those two in the game to take advantage of those strengths,” he said. “Cade shooting the way he’s shooting really helps tremendously. Same thing with Killian. He’s doing a good job of attacking gaps and finding open guys. They’re growing together and they’re good for each other.”