Cade Cunningham gave peers from the vaunted 2021 NBA draft class a considerable head start in the Rookie of the Year race by missing a month with an ankle injury. Turns out, that month was the equivalent of Usain Bolt getting out of the blocks one-thousandth of a second behind a field of world-class sprinters. They won’t have to look over their shoulders for long because soon enough they’ll be seeing his back.
After missing his first 18 3-point attempts and scuffling to find his footing for the first two weeks upon his return, Cunningham since has vaulted himself forward with Bolt-like burst.
In his last 11 games, Cunningham is averaging 16.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 41.3 percent shooting and 34.9 percent 3-point shooting. But the trend is accelerating at an even more eyebrow-raising pace. Over his last four games, the numbers are 22.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists on 51.5 percent shooting and 53.1 percent 3-point shooting.
Is it surprising that Cunningham, given the lengthy injury absence coming at the worst possible time for a rookie bearing the weight of enormous expectations, has already figured out how to use the breadth of his wondrous ability to great advantage?
“No, not really,” Dwane Casey said the day after Cunningham established a new career high with 28 points to go with 11 rebounds and five assists. “That’s why he was the number one pick. He’s talented.”
Casey didn’t want to burden Cunningham with primary ballhandling duties when he made his NBA debut Oct. 30, nearly two weeks into the regular season and more than a month since he got hurt in the opening days of training camp. But he’s recently flipped roles with Killian Hayes as 1A to Hayes’ 1B on the playmaking pyramid. And that pretty much coincides with Cunningham’s increased impact.
“I feel a lot more in rhythm,” Cunningham said. “I feel like I’ve been taking a lot better shots than what I was. I have a different feeling stepping into those shots now. It’s about continuing to stack on good days, preparation, so when game time comes, let go of everything and else and just play basketball. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time.”
One of the factors that separated Cunningham from the field of impressive possibilities for the Pistons was the flexibility that his comprehensive skill set allowed. In both designing an offense and fleshing out a roster, Cunningham – with great size, playmaking and shot-making chops in spades – makes all things possible.
“It’s great,” Casey said, recalling the heights his Toronto offenses reached with multiple playmaking threats. “Same system, same three-guard look, so to speak. That’s what we can eventually get to. Saddiq (Bey) is growing into that kind of wing player. It’s perfect. (Cunningham) does give you that flexibility offensively.”
As Cunningham has quickly ascended, defenses have by necessity had less ability to build game plans around stopping Jerami Grant’s one-on-one scoring ability. Grant, in turn, has become a more aware playmaker when a second defender comes his way and sees the chemistry with Cunningham evolving.
“He’s talented, as you all can see,” Grant said. “He’s good with the ball in his hands. He makes it easier for me playing off the ball.”
Cunningham came to the Pistons with a fully formed sense of what was expected of him, but also cognizant of the importance of easing his way into the locker room and taking pains to not radiate an aura of entitlement as the No. 1 pick. His level of play has vaporized any credibility issues he might have had on that front and Cunningham is establishing himself as a leader as surely as he’s announcing his presence as a star-level player.
“I feel like my voice is heard in the locker room,” he said. “I think I have a respected voice in the locker room. That hasn’t been a problem for me. We have a good group of guys. We have a bunch of guys that like each, that want to win for each other. Now it’s about us putting it into action.”
Rookies who prove to veterans that they’re more invested in team success than in carving out their niche, even if that response is pure survival instinct, are quickest to earn respect. Cunningham fosters it with responses like he gave to a question posed to him after Monday’s tough loss about learning to win at the NBA level after knowing so much success before arriving here.
“I think the most important thing is to keep that hate of losing,” he said. “You can’t get used to it. I’m not going to let losing some games allow me to change my mindset on how much I hate losing.”
The Pistons, an organization that’s known championship eras and endured a decade of failed attempts to re-create that magic, can certainly relate to that sentiment – and take heart in knowing they’ve staked the future to a player who so quickly has validated their faith in Cade Cunningham’s ability to alter fortunes.