Las Vegas — The opening of the Summer League schedule looked to be a made-for-TV event. On the opening night, the Houston Rockets and No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green faced the Cleveland Cavaliers and No. 3 pick Evan Mobley.
In the Rockets’ second game, they’ll face the Pistons and No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham on Tuesday night at Thomas & Mack Center. It’s the easy narrative to compare Cunningham and Green, simply because they’re the top two picks.
In their first games, Green had 23 points and five rebounds for the Rockets and Cunningham 12 points and six rebounds. That was enough fodder for the second-guessers to opine about Green being the better player and that the Pistons made the wrong pick.
There are no far-reaching conclusions to be made from one Summer League game — and even if there were, saying that Cunningham wasn’t the better pick is short-sighted, at best.
Even before the draft, most experts agreed that Green was the better scorer. The Rockets and Pistons had the two worst records last season, and they are in the midst of a massive rebuild, and both teams need different things. The Pistons drafted Killian Hayes with the No. 7 pick last year.
They considered Green with their pick this year, but looking at the full body of work, Cunningham brings more to the table. Beyond the points, consider the rest of Cunningham’s stat line on Sunday: six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks.
For Green, it was five rebounds, with two assists, no steals and no blocks.
The defensive presence that Cunningham brings was one of assets that likely set him apart in the draft assessment. Playing next to Hayes, Cunningham looked to be an ideal addition at the wing spot — and he has an understanding of how important it is to their success.
“Fifty percent of the game is defense. How good are you if you’re not taking that side of the ball seriously?” Cunningham said Sunday. “I want to try to contribute to that side and try to help my team — and getting stops is the name of the game.
“You want to be able to stop them from scoring as much as you can, so I try to set the tone for my teammates, knowing that I’m bringing energy on that side, so if I’m bringing energy, then everybody should.”
Another separator is the leadership that Cunningham will bring to the squad. He’s just 19 years old, but he’s already shown that he has a maturity well beyond his years. Cunningham understands the big picture of why he’s here, and general manager Troy Weaver has referred to Cunningham as a “human connector” of the young core that they’ve assembled.
For his part, Cunningham sees how his arrival could be perceived, and he is sensitive to making everyone around him mesh seamlessly and that his job is to make them better, along with himself.
“I know what the perspective of my teammates would be, having the No. 1 pick come in. I don’t want to come in and be a guy that’s trying to be all about me and take all of that space. I want to respect their space,” Cunningham said. “They’re trying to build on their game and Saddiq (Bey) is coming off of first-team All-Rookie, so I want him to add on that and try to elevate himself.
“For me, it’s just to come in and try to make plays and be the best teammates and make the best impact I can on this team.”
That’s some heady, self-aware observation from Cunningham. That’s the kind of player a team should want at the helm, as their foundational building block for a roster restoration. It’s not that Green won’t be that for the Rockets.
Green showed that he is very talented in scoring the ball, but that’s not solely what the Pistons need right now. However their first matchup turns out, the hot takes will flow on whichever player scores more or makes the highlight-reel plays for the team.
The thing to remember is that they both can be successful picks for their respective teams and there doesn’t have to be a “winner” and “loser” — especially in the first part of Summer League.
Pistons vs. Rockets
►Tipoff: 9 p.m., Tuesday, Thomas & Mack Center
►Outlook: The Pistons dropped their opener in Summer League, but they had some good takeaways from their core players, with Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes jelling together in the backcourt.
— Rod Beard