Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham playing catch-up to NBA game, but breathes life into team

Detroit Free Press

They came to see the debut of the franchise’s first No. 1 pick in half a century. No, Little Caesars Arena wasn’t sold out for Cade Cunningham.

But it had life.

Lots of life considering the Detroit Pistons were winless before Saturday night and had struggled, other than a late stretch against Philadelphia recently, to score. And to shoot, especially from deep.

Let’s face it: they were hard to watch. Just as most basketball is hard to watch when a team can’t shoot. What was worse was that the feel-good squad of youngsters and breakout Olympians warmed the soul last winter and played its tail off.

And yet there they were, standing and hollering, filling up most of the lower bowl, inhaling every time Cunningham let it fly. They wanted him to score. Needed him to score, to reward their faith in him.

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That will take some time, of course. Maybe longer than you’d like.

Maybe you don’t want to hear that. Or even care yet, until the Pistons show they can make a few shots. Well, they did Saturday night against Orlando, shooting their way to their first win of the season, 110-103.

As for Cunningham?

Here’s the numerical rundown:

He played 19 minutes. He made one shot. He missed seven.

He had two assists, though he might have had more if his teammates made more shots off his passes.

He had three turnovers and didn’t make a 3-pointer. He didn’t close the game because he’s on a minute’s restriction.

“I think it was good,” he said of his debut, though he said he fought the jitters, too. “Coming in, just being able to make some plays off the ball, get some rebounds. I feel I was solid defensively. Those are the points that I really wanted to come out in. Just to prove to myself that my ankle was straight, that I could move, guard, do everything well. I got the jitters out now and now I can just go play free.“

It’s a small sample size, obviously. But one big enough to see he’ll have to adjust to the speed of the NBA game. He’ll have to adjust to the spacing and strength of the players, too, to the quickness of hands trying to strip the ball and the quickness of feet sliding over to help.

Cunningham didn’t score until there were five minutes left in the second quarter. He started one way, turned another, and slipped down into the lane for a layup over the front of the rim. The crowd roared. He didn’t score again.

Dwane Casey knew he’d be rusty.

“Timing … the whole thing, you can’t go a month (without playing) and expect to play how you want,” said the Pistons coach.

He liked his effort, his intensity, his decision making. He should’ve have. Cunningham showed plenty of all three.

He showed vision and a sense for rebounding, too. And while he didn’t make shots, the offense looked a bit more fluid, spread out, if you will.

“The game sped him up,” said Casey.

Even then, it was easy to see his command of the geometry of the floor.

He may never be the athletic finisher over the top, and he’ll have to figure out how to finish over length at the rim, but he changes the math in so many ways, both obvious and less so.

Rotationally speaking, of course — the Pistons second unit, led by center, Kelly Olynyk, finally got some run against the Magic with Cunningham in the starting lineup. And psychologically speaking, as Isaiah Stewart noted:

“He knows he’s a big-time player,” he said.

How did he show the potential Saturday? Other than the occasional misdirection or crossover or spin to create space to shoot?

“He didn’t sweat,” said Stewart.

Here he was in his first NBA game, a year out of college, coming off an injury, having missed most of training camp, having watched his team stumble out of the gate, knowing the fan base couldn’t wait to see him come back and that it expected him to lift the franchise once he did, here he was finding his way through all that and staying as nonplussed as ever.

The shooting will come. The stroke is too clean and assured for it not, too. The small things were evident 19 minutes into his career.

“He’s got a chip on his shoulder,” said Stewart.

He’s got an even better head on it. He’ll need it, too, to figure out the angles and spacing and outsized athleticism he’ll see at this level every night, where even the bad teams like Orlando employ some of the best players in the world.

It’ll be a while before we see — and he sees — what he can truly be. But the odds of him thunder dunking and splashing threes in his debut after all that time rehabbing were low.

The journey is just beginning. The basketball understanding is there. Here’s guessing the shooting won’t be far behind.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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