New York — The first question in Saturday’s pregame press conference for coach Dwane Casey was predictable: whether Cade Cunningham was going to make his NBA debut.
“Yes, he’s good to go. Is that all you’ve got?” Casey joked.
That encapsulates the anticipation for seeing Cunningham, who missed almost a month because of an ankle injury. Fans have wondered aloud whether the injury was something more serious because Cunningham was sidelined for so long, but that’s what even minor injuries have turned into now.
It’s been a waiting game, and it’s going to continue to be a waiting game for Cunningham to get into a good rhythm this season. The No. 1 overall pick was ruled out for Sunday’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, the second game of a back-to-back, simply out of an abundance of caution and getting Cunningham back into playing condition slowly.
The Pistons medical staff and the front office are playing it safe with Cunningham — and it’s the right move for a rookie trying to get his feet wet and figure out where his game fits in the NBA.
There are some lofty expectations for Cunningham, but the outside noise about Cunningham being the No. 1 pick and where he fits with a very talented rookie class is just that — outside noise. He’s rightly focused on easing his way into playing and tuning out the commentary and the opinions that don’t directly impact him.
“You don’t have to listen to everything. They can say it, but it’s all about if I put my ears to it and really let it resonate with me,” Cunningham said Saturday. “I try to keep my energy in the right place; I try to keep my head in the right place.
“My team, they know what they expect out of me and I know what I expect out of me. That’s all that really matters to me. People can say whatever they want outside of that, but I probably won’t hear it.”
Cunningham has handled most things off the court well, but the pressure about producing on the court will be the next hurdle. He had all the juice following the draft and a good performance at the NBA Summer League. The ankle injury short-circuited his training camp and start of the season, but the next challenge is figuring out how to translate things he’s seen — but hasn’t done much of himself — in practices to games.
“(Watching) is nothing like being out there. There’s nothing like being in practice, getting your head knocked off, taking a charge, rebounding, running the floor, playing to exhaustion,” Casey said. “There’s nothing you can do in the training room to simulate that or watching on television, so you can see some of the nuances of some of the plays and understand the play calls, but once you get out there going full speed, it’s a different animal.
“That’s what he’s got to get used to and play through. He is going to be rusty, but that’s part of the rehab protocol you have to go through.”
Positives in debut
Cunningham’s debut had some positives, though the numbers don’t tell the full story. He finished with two points, seven rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes. He had some good defensive sequences and created some good opportunities for his teammates with his ballhandling and decision making.
Those are the positives that general manager Troy Weaver saw in Cunningham and led to drafting him. Those are the things that should come easily to the rookie — and in turn, open up some more things on offense for his teammates.
Cunningham shot 1-of-8 from the field and missed all five of his 3-point attempts. That’s more of an anomaly than anything else, and those shots will fall as he gets a better comfort level.
“I just missed them. I’m confident in my shot, and a couple of them felt really good, and a couple of them were off by a lot more than I wanted them to be. It comes with it,” Cunningham said. “I mean, you miss some and you make some, but you have to keep shooting. More than anything, I was happy in my confidence in all my shots. … It felt like it was just another game of basketball for me, which is the main thing I’m happy about, more than anything.”
It’s going to take time. Cunningham is not going to come in and set the world on fire, even with his immense talent and versatility. He’ll make his teammates better, and he’ll have better games than the opener.
It could be in the next home game, on Tuesday against the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Patience will be the key, with Cunningham, and with the team as a whole.