Cade Cunningham shows he’s exactly the leader Detroit Pistons need

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham is no ordinary 20-year-old.

He is no ordinary NBA rookie.

And he is certainly no ordinary No. 1 overall draft pick.

After struggling to score all night against the Toronto Raptors, Cunningham stepped up with three key buckets in the game’s final five minutes, including two in the last 2:30, to bring home a 127-121 road win Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Afterwards, Pistons coach Dwane Casey said he was most impressed by his young guard’s demeanor and attitude, despite the long night leading into those final moments. And he leveled extremely high praise.

“It says a lot about him,” Casey said. “Because in the locker room in there, he was one of the happiest guys. Any future star like that, scoring 10 points, probably would be crying in his milk, ‘Aw, I missed so many shots, I didn’t do this or that.’ He was happy for everybody else’s success. And that’s what you have to be to be a leader in this league. That’s what we’re preaching is that type of approach. He wasn’t hunting shots, if the game came to him, he would take it. But he wasn’t looking for touches. He was happy for Jerami Grant knocking down those 3s, he was happy for Isaiah (Stewart) for making those layups. That’s what you want your future leader to be.”

Enjoy Cade Cunningham’s rookie battles now because stakes will never be lower ]

Starting the night 1-for-7 shooting — all 3-point attempts — and with just three points, Cunningham shook off a rough outing against Toronto’s amalgam of lengthy wing defenders and made his final three shots to finish with 10 points.

Defended by fellow rookie (and No. 4 pick) Scottie Barnes, Cunningham initiated a pick-and-roll above the 3-point line with Grant. Barnes easily slipped over the poorly set screen, and Cunningham tossed back to Grant. He drove right but was cut off in the paint and turned to shoot a contested fadeaway as Barnes offered help. But Grant spotted Cunningham open and ready to shoot on the left wing and made the easy pass. Cunningham confidently swished the uncontested 3-pointer to give his team a 117-106 lead with 4:53 remaining.

Cunningham’s next two shots were drives against OG Anunoby, at a chiseled 6 feet 7 and 232 pounds, who received three votes for NBA All-Defensive Second Team a season ago.

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The first showed Cunningham’s physicality and strength.

After the Raptors (7-7) sliced the 11-point deficit to 117-113, and with the crowd on its feet, the Pistons (3-9) put the ball in the hands of their 20-year-old rookie playing in his seventh NBA game.

He caught the ball standing on the left wing in the triple-threat position. He took two hard dribbles to his right into the paint, gathered himself, leaned into the chest of Anunoby to create space and finished with a soft right hook.

The second will be on highlight reels.

Guarded by Barnes with 90 seconds remaining and leading 121-118, Cunningham initiated a pick-and-roll with Stewart, and Anunoby switched onto him. Again from the left wing, Cunningham used a left-to-right crossover and then immediately crossed over back to his left, before expertly floating a left-handed runner — jumping off his left leg, the wrong one on the left side of the hoop — off the top of the square on the backboard over a leaping Anunoby. It looked so smooth, yet showed his deft ball-handling, balance and touch with his non-shooting hand.

”He’s made for those kinds of moments,” Stewart said. “He’s that kind of player.”

[ Read more below ]

The whole scoring package, indeed, with a unique winning attitude at such a young age makes him likeable to not just fans, but his coaching staff and, most importantly, teammates.

That reputation may come in handy one day in free agency or trades, as the Pistons continue to try to build a winner.

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

Hayes’ career first nearly derailed

Neither the Raptors nor an aggravation of a painful thumb injury could stop Killian Hayes from having a career night Saturday.

Hayes stood out on both ends in earning his first career double-double with 13 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds against three turnovers. He shot 4-for-7 overall, knocking down three of his four 3-pointers, and secured two free throws after fighting for an offensive rebound.

But the performance almost was derailed midway through the game.

After one of his best halves of the season, in which he collected seven points, five assists and five rebounds against the relentless, lengthy Raptors, Hayes was hit on his left thumb on a drive, resulting in a turnover and a breakaway layup with 9:07 left in the third quarter. The Pistons called timeout, and Hayes bent over holding his hand in pain. He was subbed out and sat on the bench with ice on the thumb. Later, after getting up to throw lefty passes in the tunnel, he returned to the bench and gave Casey a literal thumbs-up.

“I know that was something that was going to happen,” Hayes said. “It’s basketball. When I just felt he hit it, I knew what to expect already because it happened before. And you just got to fight through it. Yeah, it hurts, but it’s whatever, we’ve got to win this game.”

Hayes returned at the start of the fourth and played all 12 minutes. He immediately made a difference, hitting consecutive catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, then dishing to Josh Jackson for a 3 as part of a 9-2 run to open a 108-100 lead early in the final frame.

It was a stunning turnaround from 24 hours prior, when the Pistons scored a meager 78 points in a 20-point loss at Cleveland.

But in Toronto, the Pistons shared the ball well and created open looks most of the night, dishing out a season-high 34 assists en route to 54.4% shooting and 42.9% from 3 (15-for-42).

“It told me a lot about our character, and I told them that in there after the game,” Casey said. “Win, lose or draw next week, this game tonight put a stake in the ground of who we can be and how we can play, and should be a measuring stick for us.”

It’s early, but Hayes is the Pistons’ leading 3-point shooter at 43.3% on 2.7 attempts per game (13-for-30), nearly all off the catch — a crucial skill he’ll need to provide spacing for Cunningham, Grant and others. He has struggled inside the arc, shooting 12-for-48 on 2-pointers (25%) and averaging just 6.5 points with 3.7 assists in 26.1 minutes per game.

“I trust every single one of these guys and they trust me as well, so when you step on the court, you got to play with a lot of confidence,” Hayes said. “Even if shots fall, shots don’t fall, you got to keep your head up.”

Through the ups and downs, Hayes has been a pest on defense, using his quick hands and 6-5 frame to ward off defenders. He recorded six steals in Cleveland on Friday.

Casey was complimentary of Hayes on that end vs. Toronto, where the 20-year-old was credited with one block, but helped create a few turnovers, including executing a double-team with Cunningham against Barnes.

“I thought Killian’s defense — you won’t see it here on the stat sheet — but I thought he set the tone with his defense,” Casey said. “His hand activity, his position, he’s using his body. He has done that now for the entire (season).”

Hayes will be challenged this week during the Pistons’ five-game homestand, starting with Monday’s matchup against De’Aaron Fox and Sacramento, with Indiana’s Malcolm Brodgon visiting Wednesday, and Stephen Curry and Golden State arriving Friday.

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