After the Detroit Pistons won the NBA draft lottery, Cade Cunningham began studying his new team on YouTube.
Of course, Cunningham was a month away from being drafted by the Pistons. But he wanted to get a head start. He pulled up full games and highlights to get a feel for his soon-to-be-teammates, and how his game could fit alongside them.
Cunningham had his first chance to use what he learned on Monday during his first practice with the summer league team. The group will practice all week before leaving for Vegas on Friday for the five-game slate, beginning Sunday.
After a long pre-draft process that prevented him from getting any five-on-five work in, he said it was fun to be able to get back into the offseason swing.
“I want to get a flow for the team, I want to get a feel for everybody on the team,” he said. “I know what the number one pick perception is coming in, so the biggest thing for me is to come in and reassure the team that I’m about playing winning basketball instead of just trying to live up to the hype or whatever. I want to be able to blend in, get a good flow in the offense, get the ball moving, things like that so that we can play good basketball and then move forward.”
Head coach Dwane Casey will have plenty of time to evaluate Cunningham and figure out how to maximize his impact before the season tips off in October. But certain aspects of that process are pretty straightforward. Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 playmaker who can do everything on offense and defend multiple positions on defense, won’t be hard to work into the game plan.
The Pistons run a scheme with a lot of overlap in responsibilities between point guard, shooting guard and small forward. Last season, Casey often spoke of the Pistons embracing the modern, positionless-approach to basketball. With Cunningham in tow, he wants to go even further in that direction.
It helps that Cunningham’s potential running mate, Killian Hayes, is also a playmaker who can defend. Cunningham and Hayes will be 1A and 1B as ball-handlers, Casey said. He doesn’t want to hand more responsibility to one over the other. Both of Detroit’s lottery picks under Troy Weaver are being handed the keys.
“Everybody has a role, but again, it’s playing basketball,” Casey said. “It’s not anything complicated and that’s one thing I don’t want to do is overthink. “Well this guy’s gotta do this, this guy’s gotta do, no. It’s basketball. We have certain roles for the one, two and three that are interchangeable and should be interchangeable, which will make those guys more difficult to guard. But (Cunningham is) comfortable doing anything, whether it’s pick-and-roll, off the ball, defending a two, defending a three, he showed it today.”
The Pistons’ summer league roster will include most of their young players, but much of the focus will be on Cunningham, the newly-drafted first overall pick, and Hayes, who didn’t have a summer league to attend last year and only played 26 NBA games due to injury.
Casey said he isn’t sure where their comfort level will be while sharing the floor together, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We want them comfortable playing, but a little bit of being uncomfortable is good,” Casey said. “I like them being uncomfortable right now. It’s a time to be uncomfortable. Trying to get those guys a rhythm playing together, 1A and 1B, is not new. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. Getting a rhythm more than being comfortable is the terminology for what we use.”
Summer league roster coming into focus
Because the NBA canceled last year’s summer league due to the pandemic, most of Detroit’s young players have yet to participate in one. It places extra importance on this year’s summer league, which will run from Aug. 8-17, from a developmental standpoint.
Isaiah Livers, the 42nd pick of the 2021 draft, and Isaiah Stewart will sit out of summer league due to injury. Livers is recovering from a foot injury suffered during the Big Ten tournament, while Stewart is close to returning from an ankle injury during his time in Las Vegas with the USA Select Team.
Chris Smith, who signed a two-way contract with the Pistons last week, will also miss summer league as he continues to rehab an ACL injury suffered while at UCLA in January.
Otherwise, the Pistons should have a pretty stacked roster. Cunningham, Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Sekou Doumbouya, Luka Garza and Balsa Koprivica are all expected to attend. Koprivica is expected to join the team after the NBA clears Detroit’s trade with the Charlotte Hornets.
Saben Lee and Frank Jackson, who were tendered qualifying offers last week and currently are in restricted free agency limbo, could also join. The summer league team will be coached by assistant coach JD DuBois.
“This is an exciting time for our team because we are such a young team,” Casey said. “There is such a large amount of teaching to be done, which we didn’t have last year. We missed the summer. So we got a lot of teaching juices pent up.”
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