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

Detroit Free Press

The NBA schedule-makers threw fans a juicy bone last week.

Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2021 NBA draft, faced the second, third and fourth picks in consecutive order. The Detroit Pistons kicked off their three-game trip with a nationally televised win over Jalen Green and the Houston Rockets, fell to Evan Mobley and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday and concluded their swing against Scottie Barnes and the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.

It was a prime showcase of a draft class that has a chance to be historically great. Cunningham was nearly the consensus best prospect, but Mobley, Green and Orlando Magic point guard Jalen Suggs were all talented enough to go first overall in lesser drafts. Barnes wasn’t a consensus top-four pick yet has emerged as an early Rookie of the Year contender.

Last night’s thriller: Cade Cunningham shows he’s exactly the leader Pistons crave ]

The strength of this rookie class may be worrisome for some Pistons fans. Cunningham hasn’t done anything to suggest he won’t live up to being the No. 1 pick, but he also hasn’t been the best rookie thus far. Debates played out in real-time on social media during last week’s slate of games. There was joy. There was angst. There were valid reasons for concerns and plenty of overreactions.

After watching Cunningham take on his classmates, here is my takeaway:

This is extremely fun. And it will continue to be fun — not just through this season, but through the next decade-plus.

It’s rare to see a rookie class that’s already this exciting. We’re barely a month into the season, and we can already see the outlines of several players emerging as perennial All-Stars.

Mobley, who the Pistons were very high on, is the perfect modern big man. He posted 16 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, two steals and hit a pair of 3-pointers to hand the Pistons what might’ve been their worst loss of the season. Like the rest of the NBA, Detroit had no answer for him.

Barnes is a do-it-all forward who has scored much better than many predicted following his freshman season at Florida State, averaging 16.6 points per game on 52.7% shooting entering Saturday.

Josh Giddey (sixth pick), Franz Wagner (eighth pick) and Chris Duarte (13th pick) have also all exceeded expectations thus far. It’s a strong lottery crop, and it could get better as three of the top five picks continue to look for their footing.

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Fans will naturally compare Cunningham to the rest of the rookie class. There’s little reason to panic about his potential. He had his best game of the season thus far against Green and the Rockets, making several key plays down the stretch to help the Pistons pull away with their second win. He has hit clutch 3-pointers and made clutch defensive plays. His vision has been good, though he has struggled with turnovers as morookies do. Since he has had to adapt to the NBA’s pace on the fly, it’s natural there have been some bumps along the way.

Cunningham’s played just seven games after missing training camp, preseason and five of Detroit’s first six regular season games with a sprained ankle. He appears to be finding his rhythm, but it’s foolish to judge a rookie after their first handful of games anyway.

Keep in mind Anthony Edwards, last year’s No. 1 pick, initially didn’t look like a Rookie of the Year contender with the Minnesota Timberwolves. During his first 16 games, he averaged 12.3 points on 34.4% shooting and 24.4% from 3. He finished his rookie season averaging 19.3 points on 41.7% overall shooting, and currently looks like an All-Star. Trae Young is another primary ball-handler who recently had a slow start as a rookie.

Now they’re both stars, and no one thinks about the early portion of their first seasons.

MORE SANKOFA: Cade Cunningham hasn’t played a whole lot but he looks like he belongs

Green and Suggs, too, have struggled to score efficiently. That’s unlikely to last. Green averaged an efficient 17.9 points per game as a teenager in the G League last season. Suggs hit more than half of his shot attempts as a freshman at Gonzaga, and was a respectable 3-point shooter. It would be stunning to see either player struggle to score in the NBA long term, and that’s also true for Cunningham.

Don’t let the early rookie warts distract you from the fact there’s an inherent fun to all of this madness. Cunningham may end up being the best player in this class. He may not be. We won’t know the answer for years. And right now, it doesn’t really matter.

These are the first of many battles that will take place between Cunningham, Green, Mobley and the rest. Fans and pundits will re-evaluate their opinions an endless number of times. The rookies will write their own histories, and face each other in games far more important than the ones we saw last week.

Enjoy it now, because the stakes will never be this low again.

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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