Cade Cunningham is the perfect player in today’s NBA. Detroit Pistons must take him No. 1

Detroit Free Press

Cade Cunningham’s virtuoso performance against Baylor during the Big 12 tournament tells you everything you need to know about him as a prospect.

The Oklahoma State star made spot-up, step-back and pull-up 3-pointers. He set up his teammates both in transition and in half court. He kept the ball on a string and scored 20 points in the second half to help ice an 83-74 upset win over the eventual NCAA champion Bears.

Cunningham finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists against one of college basketball’s best defenses. In close, high-stakes games, sometimes all you need is someone who can get a bucket.

[ Pistons post-NBA draft lottery mailbag: Breaking down Cade Cunningham debate ]

That, in simple terms, is Cunningham. He has been the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft since he committed to the Cowboys. Essentially a 6-foot-8 point guard, he’s a high-level shooter, passer and ball-handler with the length (a 7-foot wingspan) to be an impact defender as well.

In a month, there’s a great chance he will be drafted by the Detroit Pistons. The organization is positioned to add the franchise player to their talented young core on July 29, after winning Tuesday’s lottery. It was an incredible stroke of luck for the Pistons, who had previously never moved up in a lottery with their own pick and hadn’t had the first overall selection since 1970.

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Cunningham would immediately be their most talented draft pick since they selected Grant Hill in 1994.

Even so, the Pistons will do their due diligence leading up to the draft. There are three other prospects — USC center Evan Mobley, G League Ignite guard Jalen Green and Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs — who are talented enough to be top picks in lesser drafts. Per sources, Detroit is high on Mobley and Green. While Cunningham is the favorite — and it would be surprising to see another player be selected first overall — it’s a discussion team leadership will have the next four weeks.

After the lottery, general manager Troy Weaver said Cunningham is at the top of the Pistons’ list. He didn’t rule out the possibility of trading the pick. They’re still planning to work out five players ahead of the draft.

“I don’t listen to the rhetoric outside on right and wrong picks, any of that,” Weaver said. “We’ll stay true to our process and we’ll continue to do that. We’ll be ready to pick. I’m happy we have the No. 1 pick. Some people wouldn’t be. I’m ecstatic. Excited about moving our franchise forward. Getting the pick right, that’s what I was hired for. We gotta do our work and be ready.

They will go through their process, listen to offers and keep an open mindset, but from both a talent and fit standpoint, Cunningham is likely the best option for the Pistons. Green and Mobley are great prospects worthy of consideration. In the end, it’s tough to envision Detroit finding a better outcome than keeping the pick and taking the best player on the board. 

Why Cunningham is a perfect fit

The NBA is dominated by shot-creating perimeter players. The 2021 playoffs have been a testament to this.

Trae Young has powered the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals. Kevin Durant almost singlehandedly kept the Brooklyn Nets in contention against the Milwaukee Bucks after Kyrie Irving and James Harden suffered injuries.

Paul George’s heroics have (mostly) kept the Los Angeles Clippers afloat without Kawhi Leonard, and the Clippers triumphed over the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the semifinals due to superior shooting. Rudy Gobert, the reigning three-time Defensive Player of the Year, was rendered powerless once the Clippers went small and drew him out of the paint.

Cunningham has all of the tools to be one of the league’s premier perimeter threats. He averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game and hit 40% of his 5.7 3-point attempts per game. He doesn’t have a weakness in his game. His threat to pull up behind the 3-point line puts significant pressure on defenses. He can make every pass in the book. He doesn’t shy away from midrange jumpers or contact near the rim. He always has to be accounted for.

Acknowledging that Cunningham a “perfect fit” for the Pistons is a bit obvious. It’s like saying an engine is a perfect fit for a car.

With the Pistons, Cunningham would immediately step in as a lead ball-handler who’s also comfortable off the ball. He led all college basketball players in points scored in clutch situations with 106, per @SynergySST. Cunningham would take significant pressure off Jerami Grant — Detroit’s leading scorer last season — and share ball-handling responsibilities with Killian Hayes.

A starting lineup of Cunningham, Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Grant and Isaiah Stewart would give the Pistons five switchable defenders. Cunningham, Bey and Grant are above-average shooters. Because he can do everything on offense, it would take some effort to put a “bad” lineup around him. As long as he has space to operate, he’ll be fine.

The fit between Cunningham and Hayes would be one to watch, however. Hayes, selected at No. 7 overall in 2020, was the best passer on last year’s roster. There’s a lot of upside to a Cunningham-Hayes backcourt, as they’re both big guards and high-IQ players who project to be plus defenders. Hayes’ defense might’ve been his best attribute as a rookie.

Cunningham’s arrival would force Hayes to play without the ball in his hands more often. He’ll need to get better as a shooter off the catch, as he hit just 27.8% of his outside shots last season. Improving as a shooter is a priority for him this offseason.

The Pistons often paired Hayes alongside other ball-handlers last season, with mixed results. But he had his best game of the season on May 9, scoring 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting with eight assists and seven rebounds while spending significant minutes on the floor with fellow rookie point guard, Saben Lee.

LOOKING BACK: Detroit has a checkered past with No. 1 picks, but there have been big hits, too

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“I love it,” Hayes said of playing without the ball in his hands. “That was the second game I played at the same time as Saben and I love it. Just playing and being able to be off the ball just makes the game more fun. When you always have the ball in your hand, the defense can read what you want to do. Me being off of it, Saben doing his thing, creating, I like playing the combo. The point guard and shooting guard positions.”

Dwane Casey has preached how important it is to have multiple ballhandlers on the floor, and his joyous reaction to Tuesday’s lottery result could be a good indicator of how Cunningham would transform the Pistons.

Even if Hayes never becomes an average shooter, the thought of Hayes and Cunningham running fast breaks together on offense while snuffing out opposing backcourts on defense would make most coaches salivate. Cunningham would certainly make Hayes’ life easier, and Hayes could do the same for Cunningham. Evaluating their fit together is a good problem to have.

“It will,” Casey said May 9 when asked if Hayes playing without the ball will be a growth area. “Just learning to play off the ball a little bit, and again, having another guy to bring it down and get him off the ball to one, rest him a little bit and then two, let him catch it with a live dribble. So both those things will be beneficial to him and if he continues to shoot the ball the way he shot it tonight, it’s going to be another big plus because now you can space the floor.”

Evaluating the field

As good as Cunningham is, many draft evaluators believe the Pistons should still keep their options open.

Mobley, a mobile 7-foot center with a 7-4 wingspan, is the rare center that you can trust switching on to opposing point guards. His upside as a ballhandler, shooter and passer could make him a primary offensive option down the road, with the tools to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. Green is a hyper-athletic shooting guard who averaged 18 points per game as a teenager in the G League. He can score at all three levels. His playmaking and defense are question marks, but he could emerge as one of the NBA’s purest scorers. Either player would’ve been No. 1 picks in 2020.

“I do believe Cade Cunningham is the best prospect in this draft,” CBS Sports columnist and NBA draft guru Gary Parrish told the Free Press. “I don’t think it’s a situation where you don’t even need to talk about it, like 2003 LeBron James, 2012 Anthony Davis and probably 2019 Zion Williamson. Those, you didn’t even have to have conversations. If you had the No. 1 pick, you knew who you were taking. This isn’t quite that, although again, I think all 30 franchises, if taking first, should take Cade Cunningham, and I’d be surprised if Detroit doesn’t take Cade Cunningham.”

The Pistons are operating from a position of strength. They could move down a spot or two and still end up with a potential franchise player, with additional draft picks or young players to add to their core. But Cunningham has both a high floor and a high ceiling, Parrish said.

Detroit should do its homework, but drafting Cunningham could ultimately prove to have the highest value of any other option on the table.

“He’s a perimeter player with size who can play on or off the ball, who can create shots and then he can make them,” Parrish said. “I’m not going to promise you he’s a Hall of Famer, because you should always leave some wiggle room for most of these guys. He’s a No. 1 pick. But when I draft him No. 1, if I’m Detroit, I think I’m drafting a guy who’s going to be an All-Star many times over and the face of my franchise for a really long time.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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