Wojo: Pistons’ No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham carries weight as face of franchise

Detroit News

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 one and a new one, created Thursday night 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 and neither is Pistons GM Troy Weaver, who said he made the final decision Thursday morning but sounded like he’d had his mind made up for a while.

“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.”

Weaver is a renowned risk-taker and spent his time vetting options, but he said he never got a tempting trade offer, and that seemed fine with him. Cunningham, a smooth 6-foot-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 who already has endeared himself to Detroit fans and was the experts’ consensus No. 1. The one knock is, he’s not viewed as an athletically gifted marvel, or a leaping highlight reel.

When asked about that, Weaver pulled out a dramatic comparison.

“Larry Bird had the sharpest mind, and with Cunningham, his mind allows him to play faster and see and feel things, even if he’s not a superior athlete,” Weaver said. “Tremendous competitive spirit. Very intelligent on the floor. Elite player at all levels and I think that’ll continue because of his sharp mind.”

Whew. Doesn’t sound like there ever was much debate. At first blush, Cunningham certainly appears ready for the role and prepped for the city. On the broadcast after being picked, he donned a pair of stylish Cartier “Buffs” eyewear and said, “Shout out, Detroit!”

It’s a declaration that was expected for a while. We’ll see how careers unfold, but even if the next players taken — Jalen Green and Evan Mobley — become stars elsewhere, it’ll be hard to rewrite the reasons for bringing MotorCade to the Motor City. He has 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 Detroit for a workout, he showed up at Comerica Park and was greeted by fans chanting “We want Cade!” and he made it clear the feeling was mutual. 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.

The Pistons also finished 20-52 last season, the 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.

Cunningham is equally comfortable shooting, passing, rebounding or playing defenses. 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. It took a while to get here, but it’s exactly where he was destined to be.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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