Detroit — Cade Cunningham is a gift.
Since the night of the NBA Draft in July, the Pistons’ brass has been smiling from ear to ear, marveling over the possibilities of their newest acquisition. The No. 1 overall pick came to them, wrapped in a bow, following the draft lottery.
From his very first interviews, Cunningham endeared himself to Pistons fans with his maturity and his authenticity, appealing to fans of all ages with his polished, but not manufactured, charisma and personality.
Cunningham is the new cool in the Detroit sports landscape. The kind of cool that made Miles Davis a mythical figure during a bygone era. Or Eddie Murphy more recently. Or Beyonce to this generation.
Since the beginning of training camp, backers have been waiting to see Cunningham play. But instead of being able to unwrap their prized gift, they’ve been stuck holding a gift card. The value is still there, but until Cunningham’s cleared to return to play, it’s just the promise of a gift, without being able to do much with it.
The Pistons’ medical staff is being ultra-cautious with Cunningham’s injury, not wanting to rush him back before he’s at 100%, especially in the preseason. It’s frustrating to have to delay well past the holiday to get to enjoy presents, but Cunningham is worth the wait.
His status for Wednesday’s season opener at Little Caesars Arena against the Chicago Bulls is uncertain.
“For me, it’s about his health and his longevity. You don’t want to be stupid and come out and force him out there and now he’s out another month — or whatever it is,” coach Dwane Casey said Monday. “We want to be cautious and we want to make sure he gets as many of these practices in as he can. It’s a day-by-day thing, but we’re not going to put a timeline on it; if he’s not ready, he’s not ready.
“We’re not going to put a timetable on it or put limits on it. So, when he’s ready, he’ll be ready to go and there’s nothing or anybody that can change that, except his body.”
Preseason has been a waiting game for Cunningham’s ankle to heal and for him to be ready to play. When Cunningham is cleared to play is the lingering question. Will it be for the regular-season opener? Maybe on the three-game road trip the following week? Perhaps even later?
Cunningham is projected to be the corner puzzle piece that connects all of the other Pistons’ core players and helps to transform them from disparate Lego pieces into a complete Voltron action figure.
It’s more than just being a good passer and scorer. Cunningham’s maturity and leadership are maybe more valuable to the Pistons in their rebuild.
Being limited to watching on the side during training camp has slowed that process for Cunningham, but he’ll eventually have to grab the reins. That task is made harder by not getting those practice reps or in preseason games, going through everything with his new teammates.
“Right now, it’s tough because you stand on the sideline going through parts of practice, and he doesn’t feel empowered to speak up or say something,” Casey said. “Once he gets out there, he’ll have the confidence and the right to say something, because he knows what’s going on, and has a feel for the terminology.
“I see him being one of those vocal guys, but it’s hard now because the guys are going to look at him and say, ‘Hey, you’re not out here sweating and getting hit.’ That will all take care of itself in time.”
Cunningham comes to Detroit with a flair and savoir-faire that fans haven’t seen in a long time. Put a mic in front of him and he’s part Grant Hill, part Calvin Johnson. He has a spirit about himself that makes it seem like he’s been listening to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and a whole Motown playlist on shuffle since he was 10.
“He’s one of the most mature No. 1 picks I’ve ever seen. I would say another one of those guys is (Derrick) Rose,” veteran guard Rodney McGruder said. “Just that demeanor that ‘I’m coming in to work and I’m going to do what I have to do.
“They asked him to do rookie duties and he did it without even (pausing). That’s just humility that you need from a young guy. It shows what he’s about; it shows that he’s all in and he’s not just worried about himself. “That’s the little things that carry over to the court. He is very poised and I’m expecting big things from him.”
Cunningham gave a preview of those high expectations in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where he showed up and showed out in a marquee matchup with No. 2 pick Jalen Green, the brash alter-ego. While Green talked, Cunningham brushed the bravado aside and talked about his teammates more than being the No. 1 pick. Cunningham wasn’t taking the bait. That’s the maturity he brings to a Pistons team that needs the frontman, both on and off the court.
“It’s his IQ, number one, the passing and just making the right passes. I tell everyone, it’s not going to be a behind-the-back or no-look pass or anything like that. It’s just going to be the correct pass, on target to his teammate,” Cunningham’s trainer, Ashton Bennings said. “Also, the leadership skills that he has are something that you can’t teach. He just makes everyone better. He makes everyone confident, and he’s somebody that anybody would want to play with.”
Cunningham’s teammates speak highly of him, the way he handles himself, handles the basketball, handles it all as he gets out of his teenage years. Many of the veterans have talked about how it’s a process to get everything to slow down mentally during a rookie season.
It’s about tuning out the outside noise and making sure the main thing is the main thing.
“He’s been getting his work in, his attitude has been great in film sessions, the teaching and talking to him on the sideline as the practice goes on in film sessions,” Casey said. “He’s been a student of the game, but there’s nothing like being out there and going through it to get ready for an NBA season — especially for a rookie.
“It’s a little bit easier for veteran to bounce back from an injury to get back in the fray and get the timing and feel for the NBA game. But for a rookie, it’s difficult. So it’s going to be a welcoming when he does come back. But he’s talented, he’s smart, and he’s a student of the game. It shouldn’t take him as long as it would a normal rookie.”
It’s all there, but everyone will have to be patient; Cunningham’s future will soon be the present.