Cade Cunningham spent all but a few weeks of his second season almost completely out of public sight, but behind the scenes something rather remarkable took place. While injured, undergoing surgery and rehabilitating the stress fracture of his shin, Cunningham not only stayed fully engaged with his teammates but cemented his status as their unquestioned leader.
“Leader is an understatement for that guy, man,” said Jalen Duren, who spent his rookie season as the NBA’s youngest player, turning 19 in late November 2022. “Since day one, he’s just been somebody you can lean on. It hurt us when he went down, of course, but his voice was always there.”
When Cunningham’s injury was diagnosed and a month later he made the decision to opt for surgery – a more certain remedy but one that wiped out all but the first 12 games of his season – Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver stated that their belief in Cunningham’s character would allow him to use the time away to his benefit. And that’s exactly what happened.
“I learned more about my teammates than anything,” Cunningham said after the season ended. “Being able to watch them through so many games and remove myself from actually being on the court and locking in on what the defense is doing, having so much time to sit back and watch, I’ve learned a lot about my team. That’ll help me in the future, for sure.”
Players often do their rehab away from the team for any number of reasons. Cunningham felt it critical, given the youth of the Pistons, to be a constant presence. He’d get his rehab in but watch practices. Almost every one ended with Cunningham and Casey or Cunningham and Weaver joined in deep conversations.
“He picks up a lot,” Casey said after the season. “He sees everything. He sees it all and has a smart opinion on each situation. It’s really helped him, I’m sure. He’s learning what other players do, other teams’ philosophies, other players’ tendencies by watching them from afar. That’s why I engage him as much as possible after practice, before the game, during shootaround – to make sure he’s on top of it. And he is.”
It was a critical next step in Weaver’s restoration project of the Pistons. It was a step NBA veteran Kelly Olynyk forecast at the conclusion of Cunningham’s rookie season.
“I know some vets here who will talk, but he’s the one who has to do it. That’s got to be his job,” Olynyk, traded to Utah for Bojan Bogdanovic before the 2022-23 season, said at the time. “We’re here to support everybody and give our wisdom and two cents and we’ll speak when it needs to be spoken. This is Cade’s room. That’s what we need from him – as a point guard, as a leader, as the future of Detroit and the Pistons. That’s what he’s got to do and he wants to do it. The quicker he can get to that, the better.”
Cunningham embraced the responsibility thrust upon him, assuming the mantle of leadership seamlessly. There was never much doubt that would happen. Leadership comes naturally to Cunningham. It was perhaps the ultimate tiebreaker for Weaver as he considered options with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft from a talented field that included Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes. All of them had been together on USA Basketball’s junior teams. Cunningham emerged as the clear alpha of those groups, too.
“We said we needed a leader,” Weaver said after Cunningham’s rookie season. “For him to come in the door, 19 years old, have a voice and have his leadership qualities displayed this year … tremendous. He’s a connector because of his leadership.”
When Weaver manipulated the 2022 draft to come away with two lottery picks in Jaden Ivey and Duren, Cunningham made certain to put his arms around them.
“His voice, from day one, his voice was a factor. It wasn’t his play. It wasn’t whether he could put the ball in the basket,” Ivey said. “It was his voice and how he communicated with us. We feed off that. We are energized off that.”
With Cunningham sidelined, Ivey was forced to grow up in a hurry, assuming many of the on-court duties that would have been Cunningham’s province. No one was more instrumental in giving Ivey the confidence and the perspective to shoulder that onus without having his confidence shaken.
“I think the biggest thing he put into perspective is just playing together,” Ivey said. “Playing hard for the guys and leave it out there on the floor. Coming in as a rookie, I was able to talk to him even during games and timeouts. I was able to see what I could do better. He would give me those tips, those clues, how to figure out how to be better and how to take things game by game. It really helped me out a lot as I went through the season.”
“His voice is always in the locker room. His voice is always in our ears,” Duren said. “For me, for sure, and (Ivey) coming in as rookies, he was always giving us advice and walking us through everything. Him not being on the floor, we didn’t lose a step with him in his voice and his appearance. He was always around. That’s just testament to who he is as a person. He’s a guy who just loves to work. He’s a guy who’s a leader at heart. That’s just who he is.”
So respected is Cunningham, Duren went to him after the season and asked what Cunningham would like to see from him for their future success.
“I talked to him a lot about what you see in my game. What can I get better at? And he made it an emphasis, ‘Yo, we need you in the best shape possible.’ I tried to make that one of my biggest things.”
If Ivey harbored any of the doubts that outsiders had for how he and Cunningham would mesh, they evaporated very early in their relationship. Cunningham was welcoming and encouraging from their first interactions. And it took one possession of the regular season for Ivey to become convinced of their future.
“From day one, I knew we were going to have a great feel for each other,” he said. “The Orlando game (to open the regular season), the first bucket, he drove from the corner, got to the basket and he made a play. I cut and I read his eyes and I knew he was getting to the basket. I had a cut and he threw me the ball and we got a layup. Our first game together. From that point on, I knew, we’re going to figure it out and play together for a long time. I believe that. Now it’s just getting him healthy, getting the guys together and just playing.”
As sure as Weaver was about Cunningham’s rare ability to elevate the level of play in those around him when he made him the No. 1 pick two years ago, he’s equally certain that Cunningham will turn the disappointment of missing nearly all of his second season to his advantage.
“I think this year probably will really turn his career because he’s learning process,” Weaver said. “He’s such a great competitor and mental giant, but the young players that learn process, that’s how you step into your greatness. A lot of young players early on in their career had injuries and it made them better, whether (Joel) Embiid, Blake Griffin, a lot of those guys didn’t play the first or second year and it propelled them. I think the same thing will happen with Cade. He won’t have a problem fitting in at all. I expect him to be full blast when it’s time.”