His coach is talking about rust and reps — or a lack of them —and everyone else just wants to know when he’s gonna start making 3’s and making defenders miss and making the Detroit Pistons —and all those who love ’em — look like they took the right man with the No. 1 overall pick.
Well, that isn’t so easy to say a couple weeks into the season — and three games into Cade Cunningham’s NBA career. But, if you must try to predict a 20-year-old’s future, because that’s what we do in this take-a-thon cycle of ours, then how about you predict this (and I will):
The Detroit Pistons’ first No. 1 pick in half a century will be just fine. More than fine. And likely even more than that.
At the very least, how about we shelve the “bust” chatter for a bit and give him some time?
THURSDAY’S GAME: Pistons doomed by 2nd half in 109-98 loss to 76ers
Will he be transcendent? Or at least the best player in his draft class? History tells us the odds don’t favor it on the latter, as more often than not the best player from each draft comes further down the line.
Just look at the big man on the other team Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena. Joel Embiid was taken No. 3 in 2014 by Philadelphia, after Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. Then again, Embiid is only the second-best player taken that year.
Nikola Jokic, who was taken by the Denver Nuggets in the second round. And while that may be an extreme example, the draft is random that way.
No, I’m not saying Cunningham will be Wiggins or Parker. In fact, he has already shown more game than either — lots more game.
And those aren’t the players he’ll get compared to, obviously. Cunningham’s peers include Jalen Green and Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs and Scottie Barnes and possibly even Jonathan Kuminga … or any other player from the 2021 draft who finds himself on an All-NBA team down the road.
Again, Cunningham has played three games. He has looked more comfortable in each. His performance Thursday night against the 76ers was his most promising, even if his shooting — 4-for-17 against the Sixers — is still a ways off.
Here’s guessing that will come. When it does, the Pistons will have an ahead-of-his-years playmaker and scorer who will lift the team whenever he’s on the floor.
Already, this is clear, from the way he pushes the ball after getting a rebound, to the way he pushes the ball after taking an outlet pass, to the way he settles and organizes and spaces his teammates in the halfcourt.
He had the ball in his hands a lot Thursday night. That was by design, which is nice, because it’s also his strength.
Letting him operate as the primary ball handler also lets Killian Hayes work more off the ball, where he can work as a spot-up shooter and secondary playmaker. It wasn’t an accident that Hayes had his best game of the young season in this role — he had 10 points, four rebounds and two assists Thursday.
Though don’t get stuck in those numbers. Focus on how he looked — more relaxed and confident — in compiling them. That’s a result of Cunningham.
So was Jerami Grant having his best half of the season, and the team having its best 24 minutes of ball movement. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver called him a “human connector” when he drafted him.
He showed why against the 76ers.
The Pistons dropped 66 points in the first half because Grant made a few 3-pointers, Isaiah Stewart crossed Embiid and dunked and just about everyone else made shots. Mostly, though, they scored easily because they pushed the ball and flowed around Cunningham.
“The way he commanded the ball,” said coach Dwane Casey, almost marveling. “I thought he responded.”
He did in the first half, anyway. In the second, Philly coach Doc Rivers steered the defensive attention of his team toward the rookie, and Cunningham didn’t match the intensity, at least not immediately.
“A good lesson,” Casey said.
Isn’t everything at this point? He is, after all, trying to adjust to the NBA without a training camp and without preseason games.
But even if he weren’t — even if he’d hadn’t missed the six weeks of prep time that his fellow rookies had — he’d still be facing the kind of unevenness we see from nearly every NBA rookie.
Mobley may look like a revelation right now, but if he’s averaging 11 points and 10 rebounds a game three years from now, will he still be considered a supernova?
Likely not. The expectation is that he will get better. Same for Green and Suggs and Barnes and Kuminga.
And for Cunningham, who struggled from distance again (1-for-7) but showed plenty of basketball savvy by drawing five shooting fouls, for 10 chances at the free throw line. He was aggressive and much more sure of where he wanted to be on the court Thursday night.
As he said, he was closer to playing his game.
“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable,” he said after finishing with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
Comfort is key here. Which is another way of saying confidence. Because when you’re confident, you aren’t thinking as much as processing, as much as simply playing to the vision in your head.
Rust may be the primary reason he’s 1-for-21 from deep and 7-for-39 overall. He’s overthinking, too. You could see that in how badly he missed his first several 3-point attempts against Philadelphia.
And you could see it when he finally made his first 3-pointer, shot from almost the logo as the shot clock expired.
He didn’t think about that one. He just caught it and let it go.
When he attacked the rim with similar freedom, he got to the line or scored, most notably on a slick in-and-out dribble to freeze a defender that ended with a right-handed swoop out and around and back over Embiid.
That was a moment. So was the deep 3. So was the hesitation on the break to set up Stewart for a dunk. So was the (mostly) promising defense and the (very) promising rebounding. So was the ease with which he controlled parts of the game.
“I feel like I’m pretty good with the ball in my hands,” he said. “I haven’t been efficient with my first three games, but I’m getting more comfortable … The team is encouraging me to be me. I’m going to continue doing that until the (shots) fall.”
For now, the other parts of his game are ahead of his shot. Watch him shoot free throws — he made nine Thursday — and it’s a safe bet the shooting will come as well.
It’s a promising package, his range of skills, and one Cunningham can’t wait to deliver. He is doing his best to remain patient and hopeful. It isn’t unreasonable for those watching to remain patient and hopeful, too.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.