Las Vegas — For one night, at least, it was all there for the Pistons. They were in the spotlight game in Summer League, with their franchise player, No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, facing the second selection, Jalen Green.
The focus was on the individual matchup, because the teams weren’t the main attraction — the Pistons and Houston Rockets had the two worst records in the league last season. It could be a while before the squads meet in a game that matters, much less the playoffs.
For one night, all eyes were focused squarely on how Cunningham would handle the bright lights and the national TV audience. Cunningham elicited some oohs and aahs with a behind-the-back maneuver to elude Green and swish a 3-pointer. There were drives to the basket and passes to teammates for open attempts.
It was a Cade Cunningham kind of night, with 20 points, four rebounds and three steals. That was a marked improvement over his debut on Sunday night, but more importantly for the Pistons’ future, Cunningham provided context for what it all means for the team, not just for him in a spotlight matchup.
“I know that the main goal is trying to get the chemistry right with our young core and trying to figure each other out, so I was just trying to go in and play my game,” Cunningham said. “I know what the hype was around the game, but we have bigger goals to try to reach and bigger fish to fry.
“This is a Summer League game; we’ve got to try to stay focused on how we can be the best that we can be for the regular season.”
If there was any doubt that the Pistons made the right choice with the No. 1 pick, it should be wiped away by now. In his interviews, Cunningham has said all the right things, but on the court, he’s done the right things, too. For a 19-year-old, he’s shown a maturity beyond his years, but he’s also exhibited that it’s not all about scoring.
Cunningham displayed the full package, not only on offense and defense, in his matchup with Green, but he embodied the leadership that will carry the franchise for as long as he’s in a Pistons uniform. While Green has harped on his belief that he should have been the No. 1 pick — and the Pistons did consider him there — Cunningham not only has shown the potential, but the present of being worthy of that selection.
He didn’t get sped up and wasn’t in awe of the moment. Cunningham seemed to embrace the limelight and in the midst of it, his true character showed. It’s not about him; it’s about the team — and after Cunningham initially spoke of going undefeated and winning the Summer League, he has seen how tough it can really be.
“I could have been a lot better defensively,” Cunningham said. “I feel like we took another step forward, as far as playing with each other, but I think we’ve got to sustain that for 40 minutes… Obviously, losing sucks — I hate losing — but I know that it’s all about getting better every day and finding ways to help out the next man on your team.”
No wrong answer
The dichotomy in sports doesn’t often make room for appreciating more than one thing. It’s Pistons or Bulls, Lakers or Celtics, LeBron or Kobe. Now it’s turning to Cunningham or Green.
Here’s some news: we can like both of them.
Green, who finished with 25 points, showed that he’s on track to be a superstar in the league. That doesn’t mean he had to be the No. 1 pick. Michael Jordan wasn’t a top pick. Neither was Bryant or Steph Curry, Kevin Durant nor Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s possible to exceed expectations, even at the No. 2 pick.
Cunningham was what the Pistons needed for their franchise restoration, and Green is what the Rockets wanted for their rebuilding. It’s not that there is a right answer and a wrong answer; maybe it ends up being two right answers, in what works for each franchise’s future.
The quest is to get to the playoffs and maybe eventually to a championship, but it started with a Summer League game with two of the most exciting players in the draft. There’s still so much more to do.
“More than anything, I know that it’s a long journey. I know there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, but at the same time, I know that there’s perspectives that are being formed right now, today,” Cunningham said. “I know that I’m trying to add as much as I can to my game for whenever it’s playoff time, and I want to be able to be ready for that, but also know that today’s Summer League game means a lot too, so just taking it one day at a time and staying in the moment.
“I can’t skip ahead to year three right now. I’m only in this Summer League game, so we’re just trying to get each win.”
Cunningham is well on his way to making the journey well worth it for the Pistons.