Niyo: After much study, Cade Cunningham looks like the right fit for Detroit, Pistons

Detroit News

If there were any reservations, they should be gone at this point. If there was any dissension, it has to be silenced now, too. And if there are any lingering doubts, well, it’s up to all of them to make sure those go away quickly, and quietly.

That’s the challenge facing the Pistons as they enter the next phase of their so-called restoration. And as luck would have it, it’s one Cade Cunningham sounds eager to accept as the new face of this franchise, following a month of anticipation and more than a little interrogation as the Pistons thoroughly vetted him for the position.

“They definitely tested me,” Cunningham said with a smile Friday at his introductory press conference in Detroit, flanked by the Pistons’ brass and the rest of this year’s draft class — Isaiah Livers, Luka Garza and Balsa Koprivica. “They didn’t leave any stone unturned. But I appreciate that, because the No. 1 pick is a lot of responsibility. It’s a big job.”

It’s one that neither party appears to be taking lightly, either. Not Cunningham, who insists he’s “all the way in” with Detroit and seems genuinely interested in proving it. And not the Pistons, who spent the last month “working the process,” as general manager Troy Weaver puts it, trying to figure out if Cunningham really was the consensus No. 1 choice everyone made him out to be. A process, mind you, that went far beyond that obligatory visit and private workout in Detroit. Far enough that owner Tom Gores joked Friday, “Maybe we even overdid it.”

“We went through a lot with Cade, because you have to test it — this is a huge decision for us,” added Gores, who also hosted Cunningham and his family at the owner’s home in Los Angeles recently. “There were a lot of great players in the draft, and each one of the top four or five could’ve gone No. 1. So I think Cade, in a way, had his hands full, even though he was the projected No. 1. …

“We didn’t take it for granted, just because everybody says it. You have to touch and feel it. But he really passed every test.”

The real tests await, obviously, starting with Cunningham’s NBA debut in a couple weeks with the Pistons’ Summer League team in Las Vegas.

But what seems clear now is also what appears to have swayed the Pistons’ front office in the end. They listened to trade offers for the No. 1 pick leading up Thursday’s draft and were enamored with the other two top candidates, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley. Yet with Cunningham, the fit proved undeniable, on and off the court.

His game is sublime, with an old-school feel in a new-age package. He’s a 6-foot-8 guard that’s a three-level scorer and a shot creator whose “basketball IQ is off the charts,” according to Dwane Casey, the Pistons’ coach. And while he’s not the same explosive athlete as Green, there’s a reason Weaver invoked the name of Larry Bird on draft night. But beyond all that — beyond all the “clutch” performances and the winning plays he has made as a teenager — there’s also a self-awareness that the Pistons seriously valued here.

It’s one they hope will manifest itself in a team setting, as Cunningham joins a young core that arrived in Detroit less than a year ago as Weaver completely overhauled the Pistons’ roster. This group only won 20 games last season, as the GM likes to remind us, but the Pistons are building something that looks promising. So what Casey wanted to find out in the pre-draft interviews — in addition to whether Cunningham makes his bed every morning — was if the rookie was ready to roll up his sleeves.

“Just because he shows up it doesn’t mean we’re winning the championship,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of work to do, a lot of growing for all these guys here. We just wanted to make sure he was committed to the work — to the process — and he convinced us that that was the case.”

His case grew stronger the more time they spent together, whether it was watching film or taking in a Tigers game at Comerica Park during his visit last week. Cunningham’s only 19, but there’s a maturity level that’s hard to miss and a personality and a charisma that comes across easily. Weaver called Cunningham — accompanied by his parents, Keith and Carrie, as well as his adorable 2-year-old daughter, Riley — a “human connector,” and that’s exactly the sort of plug-and-play addition this roster needs right now.

“He makes everybody feel like they’re a part of things,” said Casey, who also noted Cunningham’s football background as a quarterback. “He doesn’t go and put himself above anybody else. He goes and fits in. In his DNA, he’s a leader. So that’s the connectivity that you feel from him when you talk to him and get to know him. It’s just natural. And that’s something that sticks out.”

So, too, was the way he embraced everything about this opportunity.

“Not just the No. 1 pick, but No. 1 to Detroit,” Casey noted. “He wanted to be here, he wanted to be a Piston. He knew the history of the Pistons, he knew the history of the city.”

And he knows he’ll play an outsized role in shaping the future here for this franchise. So whether it’s Cunningham stopping to thank the family of Chuck Daly at the start of Friday’s press conference — he’ll will wear the No. 2 in Detroit, a number retired in Daly’s name to honor the Bad Boys’ back-to-back championships — or donning a pair of Cartier buffs at the Barclays Center and shouting out his new city’s swagger, it’s easy to understand why Gores sounds so excited about the possibilities.

“You almost have to compose yourself,” the owner said Friday. “I woke up this morning and I felt like we won already. We haven’t won a game yet. But that’s the way I felt.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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