“I love Detroit.”
That’s how the presumptive No. 1 pick of Thursday’s NBA draft, Cade Cunningham, began his response to a question I asked on what he knows about the city that could soon become his new home. The Arlington, Texas native has no obvious ties to Detroit — he was born and raised in Texas and played college basketball at Oklahoma State. But his love for the city, and admiration for the Detroit Pistons, appeared genuine as he took questions from the media on Friday.
He complimented general manager Troy Weaver and the Pistons’ ownership group, who he met with and worked out in front of early last week. He shouted out Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, who were both All-Rookie selections and were named to the Team USA men’s basketball Select Team. He expressed confidence the franchise is heading in the right direction, despite last season’s 20-52 record.
Cunningham also said he was a big fan of Detroit’s rap scene before the Pistons won the June lottery, as he listens to Babyface Ray, 42 Dugg and Sada Baby. While describing the culture of the city, he hit all the right notes.
“I was already hip to the culture in Detroit,” Cunningham said. “It’s a city that has a lot of things going on and I feel like getting the sports team rolling again would be huge for the city. Detroit fits me, that’s the main thing I’m going to try to do is step in and embody the swag that people from Detroit walk with, the people from Michigan in general. They have an underdog, go-get-what-you-want feel to them and I like that about the city. If I am able to go in there and be the No. 1 pick, I’m going to try to carry that same swag in how I walk on the court and make the most out of it and wear the red, white and blue for sure.”
The Pistons have a pivotal decision to make Thursday. They own the top selection for the first time since 1970, in a draft considered to be strong at the top. While Cunningham is considered the best overall prospect, many draft analysts believe Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley also have the potential to emerge as All-NBA players.
Truthfully, the decision facing the Pistons shouldn’t be a tough one. Cunningham is not only a transcendent basketball talent — a 6-foot-8 lead playmaker with the tools to be one of the NBA’s best scorers as well — but a player who also seems to believe in Detroit and the “restoring” the Pistons are undergoing.
“The organization has a lot of great people within it,” Cunningham said. “I mean, starting from the owners, Troy Weaver is a great GM, and then you know all the way down. So I learned a lot on my visit. If they take me I’ll definitely be excited to be there. I think they’re in the restoration period. I don’t think they’re rebuilding. I think they’re just trying to restore what they got going on. So definitely an exciting time for that organization for sure.”
Cunningham didn’t have to pitch himself to the Pistons. He’s the best overall talent and has already met with the franchise. He’s on top of Detroit’s draft board. If he spent his entire news conference reading The Cat And The Hat out loud, it wouldn’t have impacted his draft stock.
It’s not uncommon for top prospects to play things close to the vest ahead of the draft. Mobley also had his pre-draft availability Friday, and declined to directly weigh-in on the possibility of being selected by the Pistons, or the Houston Rockets (2) or Cleveland Cavaliers (3). He’ll be happy to play anywhere, he said. During the 2019 draft combine, Ja Morant didn’t have much to say about Memphis or the Grizzlies, who went on to draft him second overall. He has since made it clear he loves the city and the organization, but was coy when there was still an outside chance he could be drafted third by the New York Knicks.
Pre-draft media interviews can vary wildly in quality. Some players are loquacious with reporters. Others keep their answers brief. Many, at the direction of their agents, avoid going into detail on the interviews and workouts they’ve had with teams, or giving answers that could be interpreted as a preference for where they end up.
Cunningham was an open book and gave thoughtful answers during his 20-minute session. He discussed his yoga routine, named Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki as an inspiration for him leaving football for basketball as a kid, broke down his approach to the game and thanked reporters for their time after his availability ended.
And whenever the Pistons came up, he wasn’t shy with his praise.
“I feel like that’s a direct correlation of what that staff is doing with their players and the amount of time that they put into development,” he said of Bey and Stewart’s play as rookies. “That’s something I like to see, both of those guys are rookies. Young core, things are going well for them. Obviously they didn’t have the season that they wanted last year but there’s a lot of things to build off of. I learned a lot from them on my visit and then just doing research after the lottery.”
The Pistons are the only team Cunningham plans to work out for, and that won’t change unless they trade the pick. Until the pick is in, anything is possible. Cunningham isn’t the only player in the draft they like, and reports of Houston’s desire in moving up continue to leak.
But let’s be real — what trade could possibly be better for the Pistons than taking Cunningham? He’s a near-perfect modern NBA player, possessing the shooting and passing ability you want in your lead ball-handler, while also having the size and length to defend multiple positions. He’s the surest thing in the draft, and has one of the highest floors of any recent prospect.
It’s icing on the cake that Cunningham is transparently excited to play for the Pistons. It’s a major vote of confidence toward the job Weaver has done so far. In less than a year, he has transformed the outlook for the franchise. They have a talented young core, a burgeoning forward with All-Star potential in Jerami Grant, and can now add a franchise player who has the talent to be a perennial All-NBA selection. Weaver has done a good job bringing in players who have pride in playing for Detroit, and Cunningham is already following the script.
Fans are probably wondering what the catch is. There doesn’t appear to be one. Cunningham wants to be a Piston. The Pistons, who haven’t won a playoff game since 2008, desperately need a player like Cunningham.
Calling this a no-brainer decision doesn’t quite describe how much of a no-brainer this should be.