Cade Cunningham emerged as the top prospect in this year’s NBA draft with his dynamic playmaking and pinpoint shooting.
Those things were missing in his debut Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena. He didn’t mind too much. Cunningham was simply thrilled to suit up and contribute to the Detroit Pistons’ first victory of the season, a 110-103 triumph over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.
Cunningham’s final stat line was ugly — two points on 1-for-8 shooting and two assists in 19 inglorious minutes.
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The last of his five missed 3-point tries clanged off the side of the backboard and he didn’t play after coming out early in the third quarter.
“I just missed ‘em,” Cunningham said. “I’m confident in my shot. A couple of them felt really good, a couple were off a lot more than where I wanted them to be, but it comes with it. You miss some, you make some, but you’ve got to keep shooting.”
Rest assured, Cunningham’s shot will come around. There was solid evidence during his one-and-done season at Oklahoma State that he was an All-Star level talent.
He was trying to scrape off the rust after missing a portion of the preseason and the Pistons’ first four regular-season games due to an ankle injury. He practiced with the Motor City Cruise, the Pistons’ new G League affiliate, this week in Midtown while the Pistons were on a road trip. He practiced Friday but he was still trying to make sure his ankle was trustworthy.
“That was the toughest thing, just sitting on the sideline watching basketball the whole time and not being able to hop in and play,” he said. “But all my teammates, they were so supportive the whole time. They wanted me to fully heal. They were just keeping my head on straight, making sure they were talking to me the whole time, not excluding me from anything. I learned a lot while I was sitting out.”
The learning continued Saturday — for others, who saw Cunningham can be a factor on the boards. He grabbed six during the first half and seven for the game.
As Cunningham settles in, he could eventually turn in a triple-double machine.
“Our guards have to rebound,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Killian (Hayes) is as big as I don’t know what. Cade is as big as I don’t know what. So they have a length and size advantage once they’re down in the paint. I thought with Cade, he has a nose for the ball rebounding-wise.”
While Cunningham struggled with his shot, he also made sure one of his fellow lottery picks had some offensive issues. Jalen Suggs, taken four picks after Cunningham, shot 3-for-13 from the field. Suggs didn’t have a field goal until shortly before Cunningham, who was on a minutes limit, departed for good in the third quarter.
There’s a healthy competition among the rookies in this class, particularly the high draft picks. Cunningham came to the party a little late but now he’s ready to establish himself.
“I’m competitive regardless,” he said. “I want to be better than who I was yesterday and whoever’s up against me. But I don’t try to compare myself to any of those guys. I have a lot of respect for all of them.
“My class is full of big-time talent,” he continued. “I know where I rank amongst those guys. I just go play my game. We’ve been pushing each other so long, talking about the guys in my class, it’s something I’m used to. I’m used to us pushing each other to be better. Seeing those guys do their thing, I’m happy for them. Now I’m excited to get my chance to do my thing.”
His “thing” will surely lead to more points and assists than he produced in his debut.
“He knows he’s a big-time player,” center Isaiah Stewart said. “He knows those shots are going to drop.”