No. 1 pick debuts suggest growing pains for Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham

Detroit Free Press

After nearly a year of the Detroit Pistons’ “Fade for Cade,” followed by — miraculously! — winning the NBA’s draft lottery, and, finally, actually drafting Cade Cunningham No. 1 overall, everything is falling into place for the return of DEEEE-TROIT BASK-ET-BALLLLLLL. (Sorry, had to get that out of our system.)

The 2021-22 season has started, everyone is ready to go and … wait, where’s Cade? Oh, that’s right, the future face of the franchise is healing up after suffering an ankle sprain early in training camp. After missing the preseason and the first four games of the regular season, he made his debut Saturday vs. Orlando.

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(Just to refresh your memory, Cunningham went to Oklahoma State as the nation’s top prospect and then carried the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament while averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals over 27 games.)

Cunningham is the sixth point guard taken No. 1 overall since 1985 — the start of the draft lottery era — to take the court (and the third to do it for the Pistons during their career). So what can we expect from Cunningham, both in his debut and in his first season? Here’s how the five point guards taken before him fared.

THE ROAD TO DETROIT: How Cunningham became can’t miss player — aided by his brother & Larry Brown

2017-18: Markelle Fultz, 76ers

The college years: After finishing his senior season in Washington D.C. as the No. 5 prep prospect (Detroit’s Josh Jackson was No. 1), Fultz surprised everyone by heading west … to Washington. There, he dominated Pac-12 competition, averaging 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks. He only played in 25 games, due to a knee injury and the Huskies’ awful season keeping them out of postseason play.

The first game: After a shoulder injury kept him out of the Sixers’ preseason rotation, Fultz was healthy enough to play in the season opener — mostly. He played just under 18 minutes, going 5-for-9 from the field with 10 points, three rebounds, an assist and a block in a loss to the Washington Wizards.

The first season: It got worse from there — much worse — as Fultz played in three more games, with 14 points in 58 minutes combined before the Sixers admitted he was hurt. This time, it was a shoulder injury, which the team blamed on a change in his shooting mechanics. He then missed 68 games before returning in late March, though he didn’t appear right then, either; Fultz averaged 7.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 17.7 minutes in the final 10 games of the season. He shot 42.9% from the field, but only attempted one 3-pointer (a miss), a year after shooting 41.3% on 3’s (on 126 attempts) in college.

The aftermath: The shoulder injury was finally diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome in Year 2 and cost Fultz another 63 games — though many believe there was a mental component to his struggles. In the 19 he did play early in the season with Philly, he averaged 8.2 points, 3.1 assists and 3.7 boards in 22.5 minutes, but not enough to keep the title-chasing Sixers from cutting their losses and dealing him to the Magic in February 2019. Fultz was finally healthy for 2019-20, though his shooting form didn’t quite return; he averaged 12.1 points in 27.7 minutes a game while shooting 46.5% — but he only hit 26.7% from 3-point range on two attempts per game. Bad luck struck again in January 2021, when he tore his ACL eight games into the COVID-19-delayed season.

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2011-12: Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers

The college years: A McDonald’s All-American in high school, Irving hardly disappointed in his lone year at Duke, averaging 17.5 points, 4.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, though he only had 11 appearances due to a toe injury.

The first game: Irving’s shooting touch was ice-cold the day after Christmas — a labor dispute delayed the start of the season — as he only hit two of his 12 shots en route to six points and seven assists in a loss to the Toronto Raptors.

The first season: Irving picked things up rapidly, starting with Game 2 against the Pistons, in which he had 14 points (on 5-for-9 shooting) with seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. He finished with Rookie of the Year honors and earned a first-team All-Rookie nod after averaging 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds.

The aftermath: Irving made the Eastern All-Star squad in Year 2, the first of six ASG berths over seven seasons. He has also averaged at least 20 points a game in eight of his 10 seasons. He left the Cavs for Boston in a blockbuster trade in August 2017, but lasted just two seasons there — including a stated promise to re-sign with the Celtics that he later retracted — before heading to Brooklyn to try to create a superteam with Kevin Durant in 2019. (And now, well, he has yet to make his 2021-22 debut in Brooklyn because he refuses to get vaccinated against COVID-19.)

2010-11: John Wall, Wizards

The college years: Wall was electric in the SEC as he averaged 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game over 37 appearances while Kentucky made it to the Elite Eight.

The first game: A bad Wizards squad needed Wall to shoot, so shoot he did: 19 attempts, more than any two of his teammates combined. Unfortunately for Washington, Wall made just six shots, along with a 2-for-3 night from the free-throw line, to finish with 14 points in a 29-point loss to the Magic. (Wall also had nine assists and three steals.)

The first season: He remained a high-volume scorer — with 14.1 attempts en route to averaging 16.4 points a game — if not a terribly efficient one, hitting 40.9% of his shots, and only 29.6% from beyond the 3-point arc. Still, he got his teammates involved, with 8.3 assists per game, and was named first-team All-Rookie.

The aftermath: Wall worked on his shot, especially on 3-pointers after hitting 7.1% (albeit on only 42 attempts) in Year 2, and Year 4 brought the first of five straight All-Star nods, with a per-game average of 19.9 points, 9.9 assists and 4.4 boards from 2014-18. In the middle of that run, he agreed to a four-year, $170 million extension with the Wizards, which kicked in with the 2018-19 season — which was cut short by a heel injury which limited him to 32 games , then suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon at his home, nixing his 2019-20 campaign. Washington shipped him to Houston for Russell Westbrook in an attempt to get out from under the contract.

2008-09: Derrick Rose, Bulls

The college years: The Chicago native made the most of his one-and-done year at Memphis, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 40 games as the Tigers went all the way to the national title game (though the runner-up finish was later vacated due to Rose cheating on his SATs).

The first game: It wasn’t a great debut for Rose against the Bucks, with a 3-for-9 night from the field. But he made five of seven free throws and added nine assists, three steals and four rebounds as the Bulls took down Milwaukee by 13.

The first season: Rose also had a high-volume attack, with 14.9 attempts per game while shooting 47.5%. (He struggled from the longer 3-point line, however, hitting 22.2% as a rookie after hitting 33.7% in college.) Still, his 16.8-point per-game average, along with 6.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds, landed him on the first-team All-Rookie squad and the Bulls in the playoffs. He was named Rookie of the Year.

The aftermath: Rose was an All-Star by his second season, NBA MVP by his third and the leader of the East’s top seed in his fourth. But that was shredded by an ACL injury in the Bulls’ first game of the 2012 playoffs; Rose missed all of the following season and appeared in just 10 games the year after that. Since returning from the injury, Rose has played for the Knicks, Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Pistons, averaging 17.2 points and 5.2 assists a game over 65 appearances in Detroit.

1996-97: Allen Iverson, 76ers

The college years: Iverson spent two seasons at Georgetown destroying the Big East; he averaged 23 points, 4.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 steals in his 67 games with the Hoyas, which included Sweet 16 and Elite Eight berths in the NCAA tournament.

The first game: It took A.I. one game to deliver greatness in Philly: He torched the Bucks for 30 points (on 12-for-19 shooting) and six assists in his debut, though the Sixers lost by eight.

The first season: His rookie year was one of just two seasons for Iverson in Philly in which he took fewer than 20 shots a game; he averaged 19.8 — while playing 40.1 minutes a game — en route to 23.5 points, 7.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals, a first-team spot on the All-Rookie team and Rookie of the Year honors.

The aftermath: While his time in Philly wasn’t without controversy — “We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game.” — Iverson took the Sixers deep into the playoffs, including making it three wins from an NBA title in 2001. Iverson finished his career with a scoring average of 26.7 points, with 6.2 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. He made the All-Star Game in his final 11 seasons, including 2008-09, when he averaged 17.4 points over 50 games with the Pistons. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, which came as no surprise to Iverson even upon his arrival in Detroit: “My whole 13-year career, I always look in the mirror after the game and feel good about my effort because I know I did everything I could to win,” he said. “With a franchise like this and being in the Eastern Conference finals six years in a row, that was the makeup of this team. Those guys gave everything they had night in and night out. With me being on this roster, it will continue to be that way.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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