‘The moment is never too big’ for Cade Cunningham

Each of the unusual number of worthy candidates to be taken first in the 2021 NBA draft had a standout quality that argued for the Pistons to use the No. 1 pick on them. Cade Cunningham’s was perhaps the least tangible among them.

Jalen Green offered absolutely elite athleticism atop pure scoring instincts. Evan Mobley was the epitome of the modern basketball unicorn. Scottie Barnes was the Swiss Army Knife who could guard all five positions. Jalen Suggs was the end-to-end blur, a Jason Kidd play-alike who led Gonzaga to the NCAA title game.

Cunningham? His distinction was that everywhere he’d ever been – on the AAU circuit, at prep powerhouse Montverde (Fla.) Academy, at USA basketball – those same players fell in line behind him. He was the alpha male among alpha males.

“His versatility, the leadership, the connectability was what really separated him,” Troy Weaver said after the Pistons GM used the top pick to put Cunningham in a Pistons uniform last July. “Look at our team, he’s a human connector – on the floor, off the floor.”

When scouts turn in their reports, is there a box for the “it” factor to check off? That’s the one where Cunningham would return 100 percent affirmative answers.

“He is a leader,” Dwane Casey said last week in Toronto when asked about his precocious rookie. “He has ‘it.’ He’s a natural leader. You don’t have to push him into that role. That’s what is exciting about him.”

A big part of leadership is the instinct to step into the most challenging, least comfortable roles. A few hours after Casey talked about Cunningham’s traits in Toronto, he hit the fourth quarter of a game within reach of the Pistons amid an individual struggle. After missing virtually all of training camp and the first four games of the regular season, Cunningham was finishing a road trip and a back to back. He made his first shot of the night, then missed his next five, all of them 3-pointers.

Then, in that fourth quarter, Cunningham scored seven points and hit 3 of 4 shots, a clutch triple to quell a Toronto run and baskets on two drives that showed off his flair, his confidence and his winning DNA.

It's tough for tenured veterans to shake off bad nights and show up at winning time. It’s exceedingly rare for it to happen for 20-year-old rookies.

“It just says who he is,” Casey said before Monday’s game in which Cunningham went for 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. “Once he gets experience, you’ll see more consistency through four quarters. But the DNA he has, the moment is never too big for him. He revels in the moment as much as anything else.”

The most resounding takeaway of the season to date for the Pistons is that the qualities that seemed to make Cunningham stand out at every level before the NBA have translated, immediately and emphatically. In last week’s win over Houston, just as in Toronto, Cunningham made huge plays down the stretch – a triple to end a Rockets run, an artful driving layup to help seal the win late. In a Nov. 6 loss to Brooklyn, Cunningham scored eight fourth-quarter points to throw a scare into the Nets and necessitate Kevin Durant turning into, well, Kevin Durant to hold off the rookie-led charge.

“It’s cool. To see the same things, to see me still translate over into the next level,” Cunningham said. “I was doing it in high school and to see it translate over to college was cool. Now being in the NBA is a dream come true. More than anything, winning games is the goal. Any way I can to help us do that is what I’m trying to do.”

That’s what he did in his only season at Oklahoma State, too, on a team that relied exclusively on him. According to Synergy Sports, Cunningham ranked first among all Division I players last season in clutch-time scoring – the final five minutes of games within five points. In those situations, he also hit 47 of 50 free throws, an absurd 94 percent.

If you’re Weaver, sitting with the first Pistons No. 1 pick in 51 years, it’s a gamble to bet on something as nebulous as “winning DNA” over a rookie field filled with talents who possess the measurables of Green, Mobley, Barnes and Suggs. But make no mistake: For as impressively as the careers of all of those rookies have launched, the Pistons wouldn’t ask for a do-over of draft night.

A big part of that is the way Cunningham so quickly won over teammates simply by revealing his essence. When he says “more than anything, winning games is the goal,” that’s the vibe he throws off in the locker room. There’s not a hint of entitlement that can so frequently envelop teens heralded since their early AAU days as the next big thing, no sense that Cunningham arrived to the NBA more fixated on the trappings that come with being the No. 1 pick than on proving to everyone that the Pistons made the right call on draft night.

To already be joining elite company – the 25/8/8 line has been accomplished now by only three Pistons rookies, Hall of Famers Grant Hill and Dave Bing the others – less than 10 games into his NBA career after missing virtually all of training camp with an injury, to already be displaying clutch DNA on the world’s biggest stage – sets Cunningham up for a run at every goal a basketball player sets for himself.

“Every game, I feel like I add something to the hard drive and something to my game,” Cunningham said. “I’ve learned so much about me as a person and me as a player since I got to the NBA. It’s promising for me, at least, to stay confident and just believe in myself for the future.”

It’s a future the Pistons feel they secured July 29 when – with a surplus of enviable options at hand – they made a decision they came to see as obvious: Cade Cunningham, alpha among alphas, as the No. 1 pick over a field of worthy No. 1 picks.