The Cade Cunningham you might have heard about this summer, the one who, from all accounts, shined through the NBA’s rising stars as part of the U.S. Select Team going against the country’s World Cup team in Las Vegas, is no different than the one you saw before.
Sure, he’s walking around with more muscle. Yes, there’s a metal rod in his leg. The facial hair is more pronounced. Aesthetically, yeah, I guess, he’s different.
The game, though, didn’t change.
“What people saw this summer was just Cade being him,” Pistons general manager Troy Weaver said of his franchise player on Monday during media day. “He didn’t do anything that we didn’t think he couldn’t do. He’s just healthy.”
Cunningham, the No. 1 pick of Detroit in 2021, has been out of sight and out of mind to the rest of the basketball world for almost a year. He played his last game for the Pistons in November of last season before a nagging shin injury forced him to get surgery and miss all but 12 games of his sophomore season. While rehabbing, Detroit went on to win an NBA-worst 17 games. People weren’t thinking about the Pistons, and they forgot about Cunningham, too.
Now, the 22-year-old is back and ready to take the organization that drafted him to the next stage in its rebuild. It’s why he turned down an opportunity to be part of the World Cup team. Cunningham wants to fulfill his promise to the Pistons organization by spearheading the revival of a historic organization that has seen better days.
Cunningham isn’t any different than he once was. This summer didn’t create a monster. He’s just healthy and ready to provide consistency. Anyone with eyes has seen the stardom long before he set up shop in the Motor City.
Now, it’s just time for Cunningham to be able to be healthy enough to prove it.
“I was definitely happy with how I played,” Cunningham said of his time in Las Vegas. “That was one of my big goals for the summer: to be healthy enough to go play for Team USA and be part of that, to see where I was at. I felt good about where I was.”
In Las Vegas, Cunningham was as meticulous as he’s always been. He forced the game to be played at his speed. He got to his spots when he wanted to. Everyone who witnessed Cunningham in that setting saw a big-body, young guard who played the game like a savvy veteran. That’s always been Cunningham. You just might not have watched. Detroit, and his injury, didn’t give you a reason to.
It should be remembered that Cunningham, more than any up-and-coming NBA star who took part in the USA festivities this summer, was the belle of the ball coming out of college. Before there was “Flimsy for Wemby”, there was “Fade for Cade.” Teams were racing toward the bottom of the NBA standings to try and land Cunningham’s services in 2021. Ask any general manager, scout or talent evaluator and they’ll tell you that Cunningham, before Wembanyama, was considered the most complete prospect to enter the NBA in the last few years. A 6-foot-6 ballhandler who was a high-level processor and a three-level scorer in college? Franchises risk ticket sales to land prospects like that.
The only surprise that should have come out of the news that Cunningham shined in Las Vegas is that he was healthy enough to do it. The talent has never been a question.
“He’s just been getting to his spots and making it look so easy,” teammate Isaiah Stewart said of Cunningham’s summer. “He’s great at slowing the game down and getting the shot he wants.”
Detroit is going to need Cunningham to flirt with stardom this season if it has any hopes of playing postseason basketball. He knows it. The best ability is availability. He’s yet to play a full 82-game season through his first two years. The talent has always been there. The stretches of high-level performances in his short career were too grand to ignore, and he did those without getting to the free-throw line or a 3-ball that, to date, got left in college.
Those issues won’t continue. The shooting form is too good for Cunningham not to one day be, at least, a league-average 3-point shooter. The frame is now there to endure more contact around the rim. Everything you need to make a superstar, Cunningham has.
“To see the progression of his conditioning, getting back on the floor … you saw glimpses of how good he is and forecast how good he can be with the U.S. deal this summer,” Pistons head coach Monty Williams said.
With stardom and leading an organization, comes leadership. Rarely, a 17-win team with a franchise cornerstone who has barely played has an undoubted leader, but Cunningham is that in Detroit. His teammates make it known anytime his name is brought up. The way he’s talked about by them is as if he’s an O.G., even though he’s the same age as most of them.
“I feel like the first thing you notice about him is that it doesn’t feel like he’s 22,” rookie Ausar Thompson said. “He seems like a 10-year vet, the way he conducts himself. His leadership is crazy for someone his age. I just try to learn from him. Anytime I have questions I go to him and some of the vets and just try to learn.”
This summer, Jalen Duren went down to visit Cunningham in his suburban Dallas home. Due to Cunningham’s injury last season, the center-point guard duo didn’t play many minutes together a season ago. Both separately and as a guard-center combo, Cunningham and Duren might be the key to the Pistons’ success both in the short and long term.
“I just wanted to be around him more,” said Duren, who played on the U.S. Select Team with Cunningham this summer. “We were able to get up and down and get some runs down there, too. That was, kind of, the introduction to me playing with him and us getting acquainted with each other’s game. I wanted to learn how to get him open and to his spots, and those kind of things.”
Cunningham’s career hasn’t been perfect to date. Injuries have forced him to miss a lot of games. He’s still young, and with that, mistakes have occurred. However, there’s no denying the talent. It was on display fairly frequently when he was on the court.
It’s easy to understand why people forgot about Cunningham. In time, and barring good health, it’ll be easy to understand why those in the NBA think so highly of him.
(Photo of Cunningham: Joe Amati / NBAE via Getty Images)