Houston — The billboards and commercials were calling for a head-to-head matchup between No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and No. 2 pick Jalen Green. The coaches and players themselves wanted to focus the attention more on the Pistons versus the Rockets.
The Pistons won the game, 112-104, Wednesday night at Toyota Center, and the two rookies were the center of attention anyway. Cunningham finished with 20 points and four rebounds and Green 23 points and five rebounds.
It’s not about the numbers, though.
It’s becoming more about the Pistons making the right choice for their situation in selecting Cunningham over Green and Evan Mobley, whom the Cleveland Cavaliers selected with the third pick.
The early returns in their Summer League meeting and in Wednesday’s game show Green’s temperament isn’t what the Pistons were looking for then, nor what they want right now in their rebuild. At this stage, Green is the more prolific scorer, but Cunningham has the intangibles that Green hasn’t yet reached yet.
“Some guys just have ‘it’ and a guy can command the ball and make plays in crunch time or in special situations,” coach Dwane Casey said after Wednesday’s game. “I feel comfortable with (Cunningham) with the ball and we ran some plays for him down the stretch, so you feel comfortable with doing it.
“He’s shown that in Summer League and when he was at Oklahoma State in college. That’s one reason why we drafted him and we’re happy we did.”
It’s not that Green isn’t a good player. He has the look of a future All-Star who will have a distinguished NBA career. Cunningham has the same DNA and outlook for his career. They’re very much alike, but they also have some big differences.
In some ways, Cunningham and Green are more like brothers than rivals. Cunningham is like the more established big brother and Green seems to be more of the younger brother who craves attention and approval.
With the ESPN cameras capturing their every move, Green blew a fuse after a highlight-reel play on an uber-athletic halfcourt play. Green got a pass on the wing and Cunningham barely missed the pass before Green drove the baseline and finished with a ferocious dunk. In the aftermath, Green turned and had words for Cunningham.
Green received a technical foul and showed some of the immaturity that made the Pistons drafting him a big question mark. He looks to be an outstanding basketball player, but the Pistons’ young core needs Cunningham’s leadership and maturity more.
Cunningham showed that in his answer about how he handles trash talk: “It depends on what they say. I’ll talk too, but it depends on what they’re saying. Nothing that I heard tonight held any real weight to me — it was as all for cameras, I felt like. I wasn’t really tripping on anything; I was just trying to play the game.”
Those words come as no shock to Pistons general manager Troy Weaver or to fans of Cunningham, who have noted his calm demeanor and his levelheadedness in the short time that he’s been in Detroit.
At just 20 years old, he’s a playmaker and a steady influence both on and off the court that will be a good complement to franchise building blocks Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart — and whomever they bring in during the rest of the process.
“It was all about how I approached the game. I didn’t come into the game thinking about it too much. Whenever the game was in the flow and everything and we were going, my mind was stuck on that,” Cunningham said. “It was the Pistons versus the Rockets — and I was just trying to find ways to give ourselves that advantage.”
That mindset sets Cunningham apart from the others in his draft class, both on and off the court.
Pistons at Cavaliers
►Tipoff: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland
►Outlook: The Pistons (2-8) ended their four-game losing streak with a victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night. … The Cavs (7-5) feature No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley (15.3 points and 7.9 rebounds).