If he were attired in Pistons quarter zips like the rest of Dwane Casey’s staff, Cade Cunningham would easily pass for one of the several development coaches seated in the second row of the team bench. Many possessions, Cunningham stands up, arms crossed, focused on the action. During timeouts, he often circles out to the court and imparts advice to a teammate, usually one of Killian Hayes or Jaden Ivey.
It's what the Pistons expected of Cunningham when it was announced in July that he would miss the rest of the regular season, one limited to 12 games for him by a shin injury that he ultimately decided to address via surgery. As devastating as the news was to both player and team, Casey and Troy Weaver both felt Cunningham was uniquely equipped to turn the down time to his advantage.
“He’s a quarterback. He’s a thinker,” Casey said at the time. “I think he’ll be able to see things a little clearer and a little more relaxed. I’ve had guys come back smarter players if he uses it properly. And I know Cade will do that.”
“Young players can learn different ways,” Weaver said. “He’s been all-in with these guys. You can see him on the bench. It’ll help him grow and understand, see things differently. It’s a tough deal, but we expect him to be better from it.”
Sure enough, that’s played out. After virtually every practice, Casey talks with Cunningham at mid-court about what’s just transpired.
“He picks up a lot. He sees everything,” Casey said. “We’ve talked about playing double bigs, where the spacing comes from, where he fits into that. He sees it all and has a smart opinion on each situation. It’s really helped him, I’m sure.”
Also coming to fruition was the expectation – or maybe just the fervent hope – that Cunningham’s absence would benefit Ivey by exposing him to the greater responsibility of having the ball and facing far more decisions than would have otherwise been the case at Cunningham’s side. Coming off a career-best 32-point outing that included eight assists and eight rebounds in Monday’s well-contested loss to Milwaukee, Ivey reflected on that and his relationship with Cunningham.
“Having Cade out has been tough this year,” he said. “He made it so easy for me coming in as a rookie.”
Ivey said he’s pored over clips of Cunningham to get a better feel for how to play with varying pace to keep defenses off-balance. “Kind of just leaning on him, seeing where he gets to his spots. I’ve been watching his game, watched clips in my down time. Just a heck of a player. I learn just how to get to his spots on the court. I love watching his game.”
Casey smiles as he recalls some of his conversations over the course of the season with Cunningham for what they’ve revealed about the things he’s absorbing.
“It’s very important as a young player in this league to understand, to learn more about the league. You don’t learn everything about the league in one year. He’s learning what other players do, other teams’ philosophies, other players’ tendencies by watching from afar. It’s very valuable and that’s why I engage him as much as possible after practice, before the game, during shootarounds – whatever it is – to make sure he’s on top of it. And he is.”
Ivey’s used the time to grow into a viable point guard, his month-over-month assists increase – from 3.8 per game in December to 6.7 in March – an accurate reflection of his evolution as a playmaker. Cunningham will assume his role as primary ballhandler and decision-maker when he returns next season, but Ivey has left no doubt he’ll be more than capable of taking the reins when Cunningham sits or merely needs to get off the ball and catch his breath. The Pistons will be a more dangerous and versatile team with two players who can attack in different ways. Ivey is already anticipating the possibilities.
“I talk about it every single day,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back on the court with him. Every single day, I try to talk to him and see what I can do better. Just a great dude and a great person on this team. Everybody leans on Cade. We’re going to stick with him and just keep leaning on him.”