Detroit — By all accounts, Cade Cunningham can do everything on a basketball court, fit any position, fill any role. There have been more-celebrated NBA prospects over the years, but not many better all-around prospects.
That’s good because his next role is a huge, provocative one, created when the Pistons drafted him No. 1: Face of the franchise.
With the current star-outage in Detroit, Cunningham actually could develop into the most-prominent face of sports in the city. This is not unfair pressure. This is how it works when chosen No. 1 and considered among the three or four best prospects of the past decade. This is what the Pistons have craved since winning three championships, since all the way back to their last No. 1 overall pick 51 years ago, Bob Lanier.
Cunningham isn’t shying from it, exuding a polished cool that fans will enjoy. Neither is Pistons GM Troy Weaver, who said the final decision came Thursday morning, but sounded like he’d made up his mind a while ago.
“The versatility he brings, the leadership, the connectability, it really separated him,” Weaver said. “Look at our team, he’s a human connector, on the floor, off the floor, along with his advanced skill set. Landing on him was a tremendous honor for us.”
In every way, the feeling was mutual. The Pistons are confident they got the right guy, and just as important, Cunningham is confident they got the right guy.
“I’ve been working to be the top guy for a long time, a lifelong dream of mine,” Cunningham said. “Finally landing in Detroit, and Detroit trusting me with this pick, I’m grateful they’ve passed me that baton and I want to take it and sprint with it. I want this to be the year we make the playoffs and go from there.”
By the time the draft began Thursday night, there was little suspense, as it was reported the Pistons had made their choice, the expected one. Weaver is a renowned risk-taker and spent his time vetting options, but said he never got a tempting trade offer, which seemed fine with him. Cunningham, a smooth 6-8 guard-forward from Oklahoma State, ultimately was too enticing to gamble away. It wasn’t worth the risk, not with this much at stake, not with a guy that already has endeared himself to Detroit fans and was the experts’ consensus No. 1.
The one knock is, Cunningham isn’t viewed as an athletically gifted marvel, not a leaping highlight reel. When asked about that, Weaver pulled out a dramatic comparison.
“Larry Bird is one of my favorite players of all time … he had the sharpest mind that I’ve seen,” Weaver said. “And this Cunningham, his mind allows him to play faster and see and feel things, even if he’s not a superior athlete. … Tremendous competitive spirt. Very intelligent on the floor. Elite player at all levels and I think he’ll continue that because of his sharp mind.”
Whew. Doesn’t sound like there ever was much of debate, even though two prospects, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley, were occasionally mentioned as possibilities. Cunningham certainly appears ready for the role and prepped for the city. On the broadcast after being picked, he donned stylish Cartier “Buffs” eyewear and said, “Shout out Detroit!”
We’ll see how careers unfold, but even if Green and Mobley become stars elsewhere, it’ll be hard to rewrite the reasons for bringing the MotorCade to the Motor City. He has a bright personality, shooting range and ball-handling skills, and although only 19, he sounds and plays worldly, as if he fully understands the game — on and off the court.
When he was in town for a workout, he showed up at Comerica Park and was greeted by fans chanting “We want Cade!” and he made it clear he wanted Detroit. He didn’t work out for any other team, betting on his own ability, and on the Pistons’ desire to make it happen.
“I love Detroit,” Cunningham said last week. “I was already hip to the culture in Detroit. It’s a city that has a lot of things going on, and I feel like getting the sports teams rolling again would be huge for the city. Detroit fits me, that’s the main thing I’m going to try to do, 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.”
Sounds like the perfect fit. And on a team with promising young players, including three first-round picks from last year — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey — it’s a group that can grow together. The Pistons have an experienced coach, Dwane Casey, who knows how to nourish young talent. They unearthed a surprise prize in Jerami Grant, who averaged 22.3 points last season and rose to the cusp of stardom.
They also finished 20-52, second-worst record in the league. But in the NBA, unlike other leagues, one player can make a massive impact. An immediate impact? Yes, although the Pistons still need lots of help.
“Detroit Pistons have always been about grit and working for everything that they have,” Cunningham said Thursday night. “You look back on the Bad Boys teams, that’s what made those teams great. I know they already have young guys that have that mentality, and I feel like me just adding on will only take us to the next step.”
Cunningham is equally comfortable shooting, passing, rebounding or playing defense. He’s known to be clutch in crunch time, and although the Pistons often reach crunch time in games, they don’t often win.
In his lone college season, he averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and shot 40% on 3-pointers. On the ESPN broadcast, commentator Jay Bilas called Cunningham a “superstar” and compared him to former Piston Grant Hill. NBA draft analyst Mike Schmitz called him “arguably the most complete prospect that I’ve ever evaluated.”
Complete and finally completed. Cunningham landed exactly where he wanted and the Pistons landed the potential superstar they desperately needed. Lots of heavy-lifting ahead, but they got a guy eager to embrace the task and carry the weight.