Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes fit can be a dynamic backcourt pair, but they both have work to do

Detroit Bad Boys

Since winning the lottery nearly two months ago, Detroit Pistons fans have waited to see Cade Cunningham in action. The first question on everyone’s mind is how does Cade look? The second, and nearly as important, question is how does Cade look next to Killian Hayes?

Through two games, the answer to the first question is — Cade looks pretty good. But most people expected that.

Cunningham tallied 12 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals in his Summer League debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Matched up against Jalen Green, the No. 2 pick in the draft, on Tuesday, Cunningham totaled 20 points, four rebounds and three steals.

Now, the tougher question. How does he look alongside Hayes? While some fans expressed concerns about the ability for Killian and Cade to coexist, I think they have the potential to be tremendous complements to each other.

Obviously, we will have a much clearer picture of how they fit together during the regular season with a full roster in games that count for something. For now, we can at least make some early observations of what the Cade-Kill pairing looks like.

Dwane Casey told the truth

Asked about which young player would take control of the traditional “point guard” role, head coach Dwane Casey declined to label things. His vision for the pairing includes both young guards acting as primary ball-handlers. More of a “1A and 1B” rather than assigning one as point and the other as the off-guard, Casey said.

Through the first two summer league games, it appears the organization is intent on giving both young playmakers a share of the load.

There has already been an outcry from some reactionary fans for Cunningham to take over as the full-time primary playmaker. Cade, however, has already shown flashes of the value he can provide as a wing playmaker playing alongside a more traditional point guard.

Killian’s strengths are as a playmaking setup man and his shortcomings are as a shooter. It’s easy to envision success with Hayes initiating the play and setting Cade up to cash in on a bucket-getting opportunity. This was evidenced by Cunningham’s first points of Summer League, a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer assisted by Hayes.

The concern now lies with the inverse of that set. What happens when the Pistons want to use Cade as the primary ball-handler? Can Killian provide value as the off-ball wing in those sets? Much of the answer to that question hinges on the progression of his jump shot. If Hayes can be even a semi-reliable shooter on drive-and-kick opportunities, the sharing of the lead guard role has the potential to be quite effective.

Through two Summer League games, Killian’s jumpshot still looks to have plenty of room for improvement. I’m encouraged, however, by the flashes of chemistry he’s shown with Cade already. A backcourt consisting of two bright young basketball IQs with huge defensive upside seems like a recipe for success. The ceiling of the pair will be determined by the heights they can reach on offense. If nothing else, fans should be excited to see how it plays out.

Defensive potential is massive

“Down the road, I think teams will look at us as a tough-defending backcourt.”

This is what Cunningham told the media regarding the defensive potential of Killian and himself following Tuesday’s loss to the Rockets. The defensive prowess of the two young guards is one of the main takeaways of Summer League thus far.

Cunningham has tallied five steals and three blocks through two Summer League contests. Hayes has been lauded by fans and teammates alike for his constant pestering of opposing guards on the perimeter. Cade noted Tuesday that he is impressed with Killian’s defense and likes seeing him set the tone on that end.

Both guards have above-average length and height. Cunningham’s vision of the pair making for one of the league’s tougher matchups on the defensive end seems if not probable then at least extremely possible. Hayes’ perimeter defense has been especially encouraging through two games. Ideally, he can hang his hat on providing plus defensive value as his offensive game comes along.

Is lack of elite athleticism a concern?

It’s worth noting that Hayes and Cunningham are by no means below-average athletes. It is fair to wonder, however, if neither one possessing elite blow-by speed will it cap the offensive potential of the duo?

The silver lining here is that both players are crafty enough to create kick-out opportunities through trapping defenders in the pick-and-role game, and both love to push ahead aggressively in transition. Pistons fans no doubt loved watching Cunningham body Jalen Green into the lane on a transition drive before setting up Sekou Doumboya for an easy layup in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game.

The first two Summer League games have seen both players experience success creating shots inside the arc. That will have to continue for help defenses to respect the drive and to force help defenders to collapse on the guards.

We’ve seen plenty of crafty guards experience success despite lacking elite athletic traits. Hayes and Cunningham are smart players with soft touches around the rim. It is likely they can find ways to compensate for their lack of elite blow-by speed. Even still, the athleticism concerns will remain until one or both of them have a dangerous enough perimeter shot to compensate.

Two playmakers are fine, but they can’t play with a third

When the Pistons won the No. 1 pick, some fans expressed concern over Hayes and Cunningham being able to share the floor together. Both are viewed as primary playmakers. However, Casey has always shown a willingness to play two point guards together, and the modern NBA seems to reward teams who play multiple playmakers at a time.

So far, Summer League has shown nothing to make fans think sets with Hayes and Cunningham making plays will not work. In both Pistons Summer League games, the starting unit with Cade and Killian have gotten double-digit first-quarter leads. There is plenty of evidence, however, to suggest a third point guard on the floor creates a crowd.

Through the first two games, Summer League coach J.D. Dubois seems intent on playing Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham alongside Saben Lee. Already, it’s become apparent that strategy is not a recipe for success.

Never mind the frustration that comes along with watching Lee run the show while two high lottery picks sit on the perimeter watching him force drives. Regardless of who is initiating the offense among that trio, the lineup just doesn’t make sense.

Killian and Cade are unselfish players who thrive on setting up teammates for scoring opportunities. They should be surrounded by scorers and shooters to maximize their impact. What they should not be doing is watching a second-round pick run the show while acting as secondary spot-up shooters.

Maybe the pair can play alongside a guard like Frank Jackson, who is best when sitting on the perimeter waiting to cash-in a 3-point opportunity. But Lee does not provide that kind of value on the wing. He is stuck running the pick-and-roll game because it’s all he knows. In the end, there is not a world where we should see this pairing on the court in the regular season. The only thing it’s providing now is wasted Summer League reps.

The pair will make each other better

I would advise every basketball fan to exercise patience when it comes to the eventual fit of Cade and Killian as the Pistons’ backcourt of the future. Neither of these players’ games are finished products. We don’t know what their skillset will look like three years from now. What we do know is this:

  • Both players are high-pedigree draft picks made by Detroit’s well-respected GM Troy Weaver
  • Neither player is old enough to consume alcohol in the United States of America — The duo has been playing together for no more than two weeks
  • Both players have high basketball IQs and terrific measurables to succeed in the league.
  • The pair is ultra-competitive

I am a firm believer that landing Cade is the best thing that could’ve happened for Killian’s development. He is now free to expand his game without the pressure of being the offensive savior of the Detroit backcourt. Cade has shown nothing but excitement to play with him. The duo has the entire season to grow together without public pressure to immediately succeed.

Cade’s talent is apparent and it’s clear that he will take on the alpha-role of this backcourt. That should be just fine by Killian Hayes. Having Cade on the floor with him will allow him to develop an off-ball game, getting opportunities to establish confidence in the catch-and-shoot game while identifying the parts of his game that flow in conjunction with Cade. The offense will come along throughout the season, fans will just need to be patient.

In the meantime, Killian looks shredded and is being credited for improving his athleticism over the offseason. He looks to have the potential of a menacing defender. His court vision gives him the upside of a top 10 passing guard in the league. There are parts of his game that Cunningham has already shown appreciation for. It is just a matter of things coming together on the offensive end. For my money, that will happen, and we are getting the first glimpse of the backcourt of the future in Detroit.

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