DETROIT, MICHIGAN - OCTOBER 15: Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons during an Open Practice at Little Caesars Arena on October 15, 2023 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 2023 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cade on Monty Williams’ impact on the Pistons: ‘I love the way he pushes us’

Cade Cunningham is going to do a lot of heavy lifting if the Pistons are to maximize their possibilities while he wears their uniform, but Monty Williams doesn’t want him frazzled from carrying more than any one man should bear.

As much as anything, that helps explain why rookie Ausar Thompson appears on track to be an opening-night starter – Thompson’s sheer ability and readiness explains most of it – and why Williams is giving others from a deep guard cohort chances to share the onus of organizing the offense.

The Pistons have the depth and size at guard – Cunningham at 6-foot-6, Killian Hayes a solidly built 6-foot-5, Jaden Ivey 6-foot-4 and ultra-athletic – to allow for a regular dose of three-guard lineups. Thompson can guard anywhere but center – and, maybe, someday there, too.

“I’ve done it before,” Williams said. “If you think of Mikal Bridges as a guard, that’s how we played in Phoenix for three years. I’ve seen, when we’ve done it in practice, some benefits of having guys like (Ivey) and Cade and Killian switching and getting through screens and things of that nature. I’ve just got to get a better feel for our team with bigs around them.”

The Pistons practiced Wednesday, then left to complete the preseason with a Thursday-Friday back-to-back against Oklahoma City and Dallas. Then they’ll have three more days of practice available before the season opener at Miami on Wednesday. But don’t mistake the end of preseason with the end of Williams learning about his team.

“You can’t cover everything,” he said as the week began. “You can’t catch every raindrop. To tell you where we are, I’m not sure.”

The emphasis remains establishing the Pistons as a defense-first team that wins more than its share of backboard battles. With Cunningham so central to building an efficient offense, Williams logically concluded it would benefit him – and, thus, the Pistons – to take on a less central role defensively.

“We’ve looked at Ausar out there guarding the toughest guy. Now Cade doesn’t have to do that,” he said. “If you’d watched a lot of the games the Pistons played in the past, Cade was out there guarding (the toughest assignment). Then you’re asking him to bring the ball down the floor and to run offense?”

Making it all work is dependent on many factors, but it starts with the willingness of the players – none more important than Cunningham himself – to buy in. Given Cunningham’s importance not just as a playmaker but a leader, his buy-in is essential. That test has been passed with flying colors.

“I love the way he pushes us,” Cunningham said Wednesday of Williams, who took a Phoenix team he inherited from 19 wins to the 2021 NBA Finals two years later. “He calls things the way he sees them. I think that honesty and that bluntness towards us, that’s huge. Especially for a young team. The systems that he’s put in, the way that he’s made it around our abilities and the personnel we have has been great for us. It’ll continue to get better as he learns us and we learn him.”

And there is a lot of learning still to do, only a little of it because Williams is new to the Pistons. Mostly, it’s because so many of the players so critical to the franchise’s future are still in various – but early – stages of their own personal development. Hayes and Isaiah Stewart, like Cunningham, are 22. Ivey is 21, Thompson 20 and Jalen Duren 19. Cunningham has played all of 12 games with Ivey and Duren and none, aside from the preseason opener, with Thompson.

But he’s seen enough from the electric rookie to eagerly anticipate his impact.

“The way he defends and competes on that end, the way he moves the ball for us, connects the floor for us, rebounds. All that stuff means a lot to us on both ends of the floor. He brings a lot.”

Duren and Cunningham did get a little more time together over the summer as teammates on the United States Select Team, which competed against the group that represented the country at the World Cup. Cunningham studied his teammates to learn as much as could about them and turn last year’s idle time to his advantage. Now he seems a Duren more sure of himself.

“The game’s slowed down for him. That’s the main thing,” Cunningham said. “Been through the fire, played so many games in the NBA, now he’s going to be more and more ready.”

More ready. Maybe not as ready as he’ll be in two months or four months or another season or two down the road. They won’t catch every raindrop by the time the season tips off next week. But they’re eagerly trying to fill up their buckets, day by day, and learning more about each other, themselves and their new coach in the process.