What we’ve learned about Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham looks like he belongs

Detroit Free Press

Nine NBA games isn’t a big sample size. In an 82-game season, things change rapidly. But it’s certainly enough to get a feel for where teams currently are in the pecking order.

The 1-8 Detroit Pistons, the Eastern Conference’s lone team without at least two wins, are one of the worst teams in the league right now. But this is Year 2 of their “restoring,” and they’re preaching growth with their young players. It has been a bumpy ride but one with bright spots, too.

Here’s what has stood out at the one-ninth mark of the season.

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Cunningham looks like he belongs

Watching Cade Cunningham’s game in slow motion helps you appreciate how polished it already is. The Pistons’ No. 1 pick knows when the ball is in his hands, anything is possible. He processes the game quickly. He makes difficult plays look easy. Cunningham, 20, isn’t the fastest player on the floor, but it doesn’t prevent him from being a step ahead.

A bucket Cunningham scored against Kevin Durant in the first quarter of Friday’s 96-90 loss against the Brooklyn Nets showed off several tricks in his bag. Cunningham pushed the ball up the court, and briefly stopped at the top of the key with Durant impeding his path. Against a smaller defender, Cunningham would’ve had an open pull-up 3. Against Durant — who is 6 feet 10 with a massive wingspan — he didn’t quite have enough room to get off a clean shot. So Cunningham went with plan B. An in-and-out dribble shifted Durant to Cunningham’s left, and he took advantage of the space by driving into Durant’s body, bumping him with his shoulder to create more space before laying the ball in.

Cunningham isn’t an explosive athlete, but he’s a highly functional one. He was a great shooter in college, and he knows how to weaponize the threat of his shooting even when his shot isn’t falling. Defenders react to his every move. His trio of fourth-quarter buckets vs. Brooklyn illustrated the variety of ways he can punish his matchups.

Patty Mills went over an Isaiah Stewart screen, allowing Cunningham to dart to the rim unimpeded and hit a floater with Mills at his hip and LaMarcus Aldridge out of position to contest the shot. Cunningham had Mills isolated at the top of the key the following possession, and hit a pull-up 3-pointer over him. Unlike Durant, Mills wasn’t big enough to bother the shot.

Cunningham’s final shot of the period was a catch-and-shoot corner 3 over Bruce Brown that cut Brooklyn’s lead to one with 2:15 left. He scored eight points during a late 11-2 Pistons run that kept them within striking distance. Cunningham’s first four NBA games highlight the power of the eye test, because his numbers haven’t done his game justice. Friday saw Cunningham shoot 6-for-17 (35.3%), and that was his career-high after shooting 12.5%, 14.3% and 23.5% respectively during his first three games. His shots, for the most part, have been good shots. They’re just not falling.

BIG SHOTS: How Cade Cunningham showed he can take over for Pistons

Cunningham is rusty and playing himself into game shape after missing training camp, preseason and five regular season games with a sprained ankle. He wasn’t the top pick purely because of scoring, and he has shown he can read the floor, rebound and defend when he’s not hitting shots.

The Pistons like what they’ve seen.

“I said this before the game tonight, that it’s just going to take the young man some games to get his sea legs under him,” coach Dwane Casey said Friday. “He had no exhibition and no training camp. It’s four games now. You’re just going to see him grow and grow and grow and get more comfortable with his conditioning, with his body, what he can do on the floor, what he can get away with. Just like the last shot he took and KD blocked it. Understanding the speed of the closeouts, all of those things he should’ve learned in training camp and exhibition. But now he’s learning it in real time in real games. It’s on the job training. But I liked what he brought to the table tonight. He really commanded the ball at the end of the game and did an excellent job of seeing the floor, doing things offensively that we need.”

ON GUARD: How Cade Cunningham became can’t miss player — aided by his brother & Larry Brown

Hayes finding success in different role

Entering the 2020 draft, Killian Hayes was seen as a pick-and-roll maestro. It’s still early in his career, but pick-and-roll scoring hasn’t been his forte. He’s emerging as a two-way, off-ball threat, though.

In Casey’s offense, Hayes has often shared ball-handling responsibilities with another backcourt player. One of his strengths last season was playing stout defense and forcing turnovers. That’s been a strength for him this season as well. He’s also shooting the ball better — a weakness last season.

Hayes is knocking down 40% of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, according to NBA Stats. That’s more than eight percentage points better than the 31.9% he shot as a rookie. He’s shooting 38.1% on 3s (8-for-21).

It’s a small sample size but if Hayes can consistently knock down 3’s, it’ll make him an ideal backcourt partner next to Cunningham. His shot mechanics look good when his feet are set, and he’s launching them with more confidence. Hayes said last season he enjoys playing off-ball, because he isn’t drawing the attention of the entire defense.

“He’s off the ball a little bit,” Casey said Thursday, after Hayes scored 10 points and made two catch-and-shoot 3s. “He’s off the ball and he’s more of a 2, spaced out, not handling the ball, the ball is finding him. And I’m really happy for him to see the ball go through the basket.”

Defensively, Hayes has shown he can hound opposing players. Hayes had five steals and a drawn charge on Durant during last Sunday’s road game against the Nets. He’s a handsy defender who uses his body to make his matchups uncomfortable.

“It was kinda his role when he played over in Germany as a young guy,” Casey said. “He had to do the dirt work, and I think it carried over from there. He’s a physical young man. He has confidence in his body.”

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Abysmal shooting

Detroit is the NBA’s only team shooting under 30% from 3 at 27.7%. The schedule has been difficult, facing the Chicago Bulls, Nets and Philadelphia 76ers twice each and the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks once each. It explains the Pistons’ record, but not the inability to make open shots.

They have several league average or above-average shooters, including Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk and Saddiq Bey, shooting below their career marks. Hayes has the highest shooting percentage on the roster. No one else is shooting better than 33.3% from outside.

The Pistons shot 11-for-34 on 3s Friday, and that 32.4% clip was one of their best of the season. They’re taking 19 wide-open 3s per game, the eighth-highest in the league. They’re hitting them at 30.4%, the worst in the league. Generating open looks hasn’t been an issue. They just need to hit more of them.

Bey searching for balance in offensive game

After connecting on 38% of his 3’s and emerging as one of Detroit’s most reliable offensive players during his rookie season, Bey has been in a slump to start this season. He’s shooting 28.8% from 3, and 38.8% overall.

Bey showcased a diversified offensive game early on, averaging 18.3 points during Detroit’s first four games while shooting 47.5% overall despite a 30.8% mark from 3. He was more confident with his back to the basket and with his dribble. But his touch inside has since fizzled, and he has been unable to compensate by knocking down more 3s.

On occasion, Bey has turned down open shots to look for better shots inside. While Casey is pleased to see Bey’s progress as an iso scorer, he’d like Bey to take what’s given to him, as well. It’s the next step in his development as an all-around scorer. He has more options in his toolbox, and he has to learn how to properly utilize them.

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“He’s turned down some shots,” Casey said. “I’d much rather for him to take it. And if he does, he either has to make the defense commit, kick it out, or make the play, because long paint 2’s early in the clock are not good shots. But that’s his next step.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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