Here’s why the Detroit Pistons might not take Cade Cunningham at No. 1 overall

Detroit Free Press

General manager Troy Weaver acknowledged after the draft lotteryin June that the Oklahoma State star is on top of their list of prospects. You would be hard-pressed to find a mock draft that doesn’t list Cunningham first. He was regarded as the best player in this draft class even before his college career began last fall.

Yet, Cunningham widely isn’t seen as a no-brainer No. 1 pick. Not like LeBron James was in 2003 or Anthony Davis in 2012 — in those years, there wasn’t even a discussion over the best overall prospect. Several draft analysts have pondered if the Pistons could be better off in the long run by going with a different player. Weaver said the Pistons will work out five players ahead of the draft and didn’t rule out the possibility of trading the pick.

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The Pistons are also high on USC big man Evan Mobley and G League Ignite guard Jalen Green, with Mobley being a close second to Cunningham, per sources. Other reports suggest that Green is a bigger threat than Mobley to supplant Cunningham as the pick. All three players have the tools to emerge as stars. There’s a clear favorite, but Mobley and Green also possess obvious star power. The Pistons are doing their due diligence.

The Free Press talked to three draft evaluators — CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo and BasketballNews.com’s Matt Babcock — about the looming decision for the Pistons. While their overall evaluations slightly differ, they all agree that Detroit should take Cunningham. They’re just not convinced that Cunningham will be regarded as the best player in the draft, years down the line.

Why Cade Cunningham is the safest pick

Versatile wing players are the most valuable commodity in the NBA right now. Teams have put a premium on players who can defend multiple positions and knock down open 3-pointers. Wings who can do that, and create their own shot or set up their teammates, tend to be superstars.

That’s Cunningham. He’s 6-feet-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, sees the floor like a point guard and was one of the best shooters in college last season. 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.

“We’re talking about a 6-8 point guard who can play on or off the ball, who can get his own shot, who shot really well from 3-point range, who could pass it when teams blitzed it and find open shooters, who can take over games late,” Parrish said. “He led college basketball in ‘clutch points,’ and it really wasn’t even close. Not only does he feel comfortable in late-game situations, he’s very successful in late-game situations.”

Woo added that Cunningham is so versatile that the Pistons wouldn’t have to worry about fit issues in the future, if they were to add another high lottery pick in the future. Detroit finished 20-52 last season, so it would take a substantial improvement for them to make the playoffs next year.

“Say next year you suck again and you have an early pick again,” Woo said. “If you take Cade this year, it’s not going to inhibit you from taking the guy you want next year. I think he’s that versatile. So for me, it’s not only ‘who’s the best player,’ but also in terms of, if we’re talking about how to rebuild a team for the position that they’re in, I just think that he makes sense in terms of flexibility.”

The case for Evan Mobley

The center position isn’t as valuable in today’s NBA as it was in the past. But elite big men still carry enormous value. The 2020-21 season’s MVP, Nikola Jokic, is a center. The next two leading vote-getters, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, are also big men.

Mobley’s potential to play at their level makes him an intriguing option. During his lone season at USC, Mobley averaged 16.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and 2.4 assists a game. His offensive game resembles that of a guard, as he possesses feathery touch, good vision and comfort making plays with the ball in his hands. But he adds even more value on defense, standing 7-feet tall with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and the instincts to become an annual All-Defensive team selection.

Babcock has Mobley as a very close second on his draft board, and Woo also sees a small gap between Mobley and Cunningham.

“He’s a hard guy to compare to anybody,” Babcock said. “He’s 7-feet, moves so well. Defensively, I don’t think he gets enough credit. I think he’s already elite and he’s still got room for growth as far as that physical strength. I think if he checks all the boxes and everything clicks, that kid can be a star player. Even with him being a big, he’s a modern big. He’s a faceup four or five who shoots the ball, passes it, runs the floor and defensively he’s such a disruptor. Not just being a rim projector. He’s disrupting shots, blocking shots all over the court, including the perimeter.”

There are two knocks against Mobley as a prospect. One is his weight — he was only 210 pounds last season. The other is his mental makeup, as both Woo and Babcock questioned if he can be an alpha dog in an NBA locker room.

“I don’t know if he has the killer instinct or if he’s the alpha dog that you’re going to anchor an offense to,” Woo said. “I view (him) as a great defensive player with a chance to be a great offensive player. Definitely really versatile, can play some four, can play some five. I think he’ll shoot it. It’s not to say I need to see more from him. It’s just that Cade’s ability to really run the offense and run a good offense separates him, where with Mobley, you’re still going to need to pair him with a good guard.”

“He’s a nice kid, he’s on the shy and quiet side,” Babcock added. “He’s not an alpha dog. If you’re talking about a potential No. 1 pick, you’re hoping to get a superstar if everything clicks. I think that’s the one thing that holds me back. If anything holds me back with Mobley, it’s mostly his approach. Is he tough enough to be a lead guy?”

The case for Jalen Green

Unlike Cunningham and Mobley, Green decided to spurn college and sign with the G League Ignite. The shooting guard excelled, averaging 17.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 46.1% overall and 36.5% on 3s.

He’s one of the most athletic players in the draft and has the skills to emerge as one of the NBA’s top scorers. He’s a good ballhandler with a quick first step; he also showcased an ability to complete creative finishes at the rim and hit outside shots at a high level. Like Cunningham, he’s a shot-making wing who could be the leading scorer for a team.

While Babcock believes the Pistons should select Cunningham, he sees Green as the best fit of any player for Detroit’s current roster.

“To bring in a guy like Cade, the devil’s advocate of that pick is they’re both ball-dominant players, even though I think they’re both versatile,” Babcock said. “Too many cooks in the kitchen as far as being a primary ball-handler. He can do some ball-handling, playmaking, but he’s a straight scorer. Big-time athlete, shot-maker from all over the place. I think he fits with what they have in place, probably better than anybody in this draft.”

While Green’s potential as a scorer is obvious, evaluators are less convinced he’ll be a good playmaker and plus defender. He averaged nearly as many turnovers (2.7) as assists. He has the tools to be a strong defender but he needs to sharpen his technique.

“For me to take him over Cade, I would have to be convinced that you could have him become more of a playmaker and he’s willing to share the ball, and do more of those things. It’s never really been, like, part of his DNA as a player,” Woo said. “He can pass and he can defend, but I’m not convinced that those are things that he loves doing. I know he loves scoring. Scorers come around a lot but for me personally, I place more value on the guys who do a lot of different stuff, unselfish players like that. Not saying that he’s selfish, but he’s more inclined to score.”

Woo and Parrish also acknowledged that it’s preferable for a No. 1 pick to make an immediate impact. Green has a timeline to become an all-around wing — Cunningham already is one.

“You don’t want to draft someone No. 1 like Jalen Green and it takes seven years to be a first time All-Star,” Parrish said. “If you’re taking someone No. 1, you’re hoping they’re an All-Star by year three or four, at the latest. But Jalen Green has incredible upside.”

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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