Detroit — After years of toiling in mediocrity, things seemed to change for the Pistons when they won the draft lottery and later selected Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
Finally, their draft luck changed for the better. Finally, they had a game-changing scorer and playmaker who would be the face of the franchise who energized the fan base.
All those things are going to happen, but not all at once.
The Pistons are taking things slowly with Cunningham and not thrusting all of the responsibilities of a foundational franchise piece in his first season. Cunningham has all the skills to be a future superstar, but he doesn’t have to shoulder all of the burden immediately.
“He’s very aware of the team dynamic and team chemistry, and he doesn’t come in the room and say, ‘Hey here I am, the No. 1 pick.’ I haven’t seen one instance of that whatsoever,” coach Dwane Casey said of Cunningham. “So, he’s very aware, at some point he’s going to have to step in and put his imprint on the situation, but he’s smart enough and savvy enough to understand team dynamics.”
With the Pistons, Cunningham will have more help around him to pick up some of the scoring load, such that he won’t have to be the singular star and focal point of everything they do.
Casey said this week that Killian Hayes, last year’s No. 7 overall pick, has been doing the majority of the ballhandling and leads the team in assists so far in training camp. Even in the NBA Summer League, Cunningham wasn’t the primary initiator on offense, a change from his one season at Oklahoma State, where he was the do-it-all playmaker and scorer.
The general tendency for teams in rebuild mode is to hand the ball to the young wunderkind and let him work. The rest of the franchise is structured around that player and all the eggs in the short term are put in that one basket.
General manager Troy Weaver said before the draft that he didn’t see Cunningham as a transformational talent like LeBron James or Shaquille O’Neal, so they’re accordingly not going to feed him the ball and just let him go.
Though he was the top pick, that’s not carte blanche to just do everything unchecked — Cunningham is going to have ups and downs and need to be cheered and supported accordingly.
“One thing I know: Cade won’t be a bust. That’s one thing you can guarantee,” Casey said. “But, there will be growing pains. We have to be supportive. He’s going to have a target on his back each and every night, and it’s on us, his teammates, the coaching staff, the whole organization to make sure we support him.
“There’s going to be some nights he scores seven and there’s going to be some nights he scores 25. Is that who he is either way? No, it’s somewhere in between until he gets used to the NBA game.”
There might have been some thought that Hayes would be expendable once Cunningham got comfortable. Each of them can be a primary ballhandler and initiator, but the Pistons seem focused on giving the ball to Hayes and spreading that responsibility around — at least initially — instead of anointing either as “the point guard.”
Casey emphasized that though both were top-10 picks, there’s no immediate grace for them to be given playing time automatically without earning it.
“The lottery pick (status) doesn’t (matter); it’s who gets it done out there for me. I don’t look at a guy (and say), ‘Oh, you were drafted No. 1,” Casey said. “If a guy’s not getting it done on the court, you’re disrespecting your teammates if you’re going to just say, ‘You’re drafted (high), so you’re going to get automatically get minutes.
“No, it’s going to be the same up and down the board. Their abilities and what they bring to the table, I would be more inclined to do that … Cade is not playing and Killian’s not playing just because they’re (first-round picks). If either one of them are not playing well, they won’t be in the game, because I can’t cheat the other teammates to leave them out there.”
All indications point to Cunningham being ready to carry a lot of the responsibility, but Casey and Weaver seem to be ready to let him grow into his role and stack on more as he shows that he’s able to handle it.
Until then, there are other options. Casey said that Jerami Grant will remain their go-to primary scorer, but there will be times when Cunningham takes the last shot or gets the play called for him on a key possession.
The Pistons are handling Cunningham the right way by letting him get his legs under him and transition to the NBA before putting too much on his plate. Even as a No. 1 pick, he will have responsibilities and pressure on him, but it’ll all come in due time.
“The No. 1 pick doesn’t mean automatically coming in and dominating the league. Probably most of the time, if you look at the history of the NBA, usually it’s the opposite,” Casey said. “Having the expectations, the understanding of where he is and helping him in every situation, he can’t get too high when he scores 20 and he can’t get too low when he gets seven.
“That’s the kind of support we have to be realistic with any rookie — not just him — but any rookie.”