By now, you’ve probably seen some of the numbers behind Cade Cunningham’s slow offensive start to his rookie season.
If you haven’t, here’s one. According to Basketball-Reference creator and NBA stats guru Justin Kubatko, Cunningham’s shooting percentage through three games (17.9%) is the lowest of any NBA player with at least 30 shot attempts since the NBA merged with the American Basketball Association in 1976.
It obviously isn’t the start to the season the Detroit Pistons wanted for their pick, or the start that Cunningham envisioned for himself. After missing most of training camp, all of preseason and five out of eight regular season games due to a sprained ankle, Cunningham is playing himself into rhythm during meaningful basketball games.
He hasn’t found that rhythm yet, but the Pistons are confident that he will.
Despite his 4-for-17 overall shooting clip, Thursday was Cunningham’s best game yet. He tallied his first double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds and also dished four assists. He made up for his poor shooting by getting to the line five times and knocking down nine of his 10 free throw attempts.
SHAWN WINDSOR: No, Cade Cunningham is not a bust. Give him time.
“That’s a huge step for him,” Dwane Casey said after the Pistons’ 109-98 loss against the Philadelphia 76ers. “I thought he did an excellent job of handling the pressure, except in the second half. In the first half, I thought he did a beautiful job of really commanding the ball, organizing the floor, setting people up, making the right reads. And his shot’s going to fall.
“It’s only a matter of time before he gets his rhythm with his 3-point shot. I’m not concerned about that. The other part, the defense, the making sure he makes the right reads and passes when he has the ball is the most important thing.”
It’s improbable that Cunningham, a strong all-around scorer and two-way player at Oklahoma State, has lost his scoring touch.
Cunningham averaged 20.1 points on 43.8% overall shooting and 40% shooting from 3 as a freshman. That included a healthy 62% clip at the rim, and only 28.4% of those shots were assisted. He was a versatile shooter who could make shots off the catch and off the dribble, and a creative ballhandler and finisher at the basket. Cunningham also had a solid summer league, averaging 18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks on 50% 3-point shooting.
He’s made just seven of his 39 field goal attempts in the NBA thus far and one of his 21 3-point attempts. Generating good shots hasn’t been an issue for him; knocking them down has been.
But we’ve seen glimpses of the shot creation he showed in college, despite his shooting percentages. He knocked down a deep 3-pointer from the logo in the third quarter and used a hesitation move to blow by Matisse Thybulle for a layup. His first bucket was a floater.
“I tell him ‘keep shooting,'” Isaiah Stewart said. “The shots he missed tonight, I’ve seen him make those shots a lot. The shots he missed and the shots he’s missing are going to turn into points soon. Ain’t no problem there.”
Cunningham did a good job dictating the tempo of the game in the first half, particularly in the first quarter. He pushed the pace on offense, and it got the starters into a rhythm early. The Pistons led the Sixers 66-63 in the first half, but shot just 25.6% during a tough second half. Cunningham committed one of two turnovers that allowed the Sixers to take a 14-point lead midway through the final period.
It’s all part of his learning curve as he adapts to the NBA’s pace on the fly.
Everything he excelled at in college may not translate to the NBA immediately, if at all. He’s playing against bigger and better athletes, and defenses are more sophisticated. There’s been a concerted effort by teams to get the ball out of Cunningham’s hands. He’s a rookie being defended like an NBA star.
But there’s no logical reason to think, at this point, that the open 3s and open looks around the rim he’s missed thus far will never fall.
If there’s a silver lining, the group of players with historically bad starts is solid company for Stewart to be in. Shawn Bradley, the previous record holder for coldest offensive start in his first three games with a 20% clip, had a long and productive NBA career.
Jordan Poole (21.9%) and Jalen Suggs (25%) are third and fourth on the list. Poole is in the midst of a breakout season averaging 16.4 points per game with the Golden State Warriors. It’s too early to make any judgements on Suggs, a fellow 2021 rookie, but he was the fifth-overall pick and was considered to be the second-best point guard prospect in the draft after Cunningham. His scoring woes are also likely to be temporary.
Three games is too small a sample size to make any conclusions about a player. It isn’t clear if or when Cunningham will shoot a high percentage this season, but the Pistons aren’t panicking about Cunningham’s slow start.
And he’s aware of what he needs to do to get back on track.
“I think just being me, I just want to play my game and I feel like I’m pretty good with the ball in my hands,” Cunningham said. “I haven’t been efficient my first three games, but I’m just getting more and more comfortable. I didn’t have a training camp, so my team is encouraging me to get the ball and be me. I’m continuing doing that until they fall.”