LAS VEGAS — Cade Cunningham’s shooting was one of his biggest strengths coming out of Oklahoma State. He knocked down 40% of his attempts as a freshman, and hit them in a variety of ways. Catch-and-shoot. Step-back. Side-step. Pull-up. He made them all, and at a frequent clip.
Through two Summer League games, we saw flashes of his touch from outside. But he has had to work himself into a rhythm, as he said didn’t play much five-on-five basketball between when he left college to when the Pistons drafted him on July 29.
Friday was a showcase of what he’s able to do when he’s feeling it. He scored 24 points and knocked down seven of his 10 outside attempts to lead the Detroit Pistons to a 93-87 win over the New York Knicks. Some of them were difficult, contested makes, but none of them made contact with the rim.
The No. 1 pick has been better each game this week in Vegas, and it’s not a coincidence that his best performance yet led the Pistons to their first win.
“It felt good,” said Cunningham, who also had seven rebounds, three assists and a block. “My jumper felt good early on. I think I hit the first one I shot. Anytime you see the first one go through, it’s a good feeling. Any time I can get an open one, I’m going to let it fly regardless, really, just because I know how much work I put into it. They gave me a couple good ones. My teammates were finding me, making sure that they were hitting me in my spots. I was trying to pay them back for that.”
His teammates certainly generated several open catch-and-shoot attempts for him, but he also created his own when the Pistons needed to put the game away.
Toward the end of the third quarter, he sized up his defender and took an extra dribble before launching a step-back 3-pointer to extend Detroit’s lead to 14. He added two more in the back half of the fourth quarter — a pull-up 3 coming off of a screen, and an open 3 from the corner off of a pass from Killian Hayes — to give the Pistons an 82-69 lead with 2:39 remaining.
“Any time the game is close, in crunch time, I feel a magnet from my hands to the ball,” Cunningham said. “I want the ball in my hands. My teammates trusted me. I’m going to keep bringing up my teammates. It was a big-time team win today. That’s what we needed, I think, as far as just trying to go into the right direction and building. The game got close, I just tried to put us ahead.”
Cunningham wasn’t quite as effective inside the arc. He hit a hanging layup in the first quarter, but said after the game he needs to adjust to playing against NBA-level athletes. The Knicks played physical defense and adopted a full-court press several times; the Pistons as a whole — not just Cunningham — struggled against it. Detroit turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 25 points for the Knicks.
Cunningham was responsible for three of those turnovers, but certain things could come a little easier for him in regular NBA action. The Pistons should be able to put better spacing around him, for one. He also acknowledged that he can be quicker with some of his decisions.
But overall, Friday highlighted one of the many reasons the Pistons took him No. 1. He was one of the best shooters in the draft, and it should translate once the season begins in October.
“There’s a reason we drafted him at one,” assistant coach JD DuBois said. “His ability to do multiple things, his ability to make tough shots, to want the ball. His leadership, both with his voice and with his actions. He prepares at a high level each and every day. His leadership is consistent. When you see performances like this, you’re not shocked because he worked really hard at it on a consistent basis.”