Why Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham is behind Cavs’ Evan Mobley in NBA rookie rankings

Detroit Free Press

Cade Cunningham has had moments of brilliance through his first 11 NBA games with the Detroit Pistons.

He has been unafraid with the ball in his hands during the final minutes of close games and has already come up clutch a handful of times.

The talent and demeanor are clearly there to lead the Pistons back to the playoffs.

Yet, early on, the rookie is struggling terribly with his jump shot and is among the league’s most inefficient shooters.

Among players with at least 100 shot attempts, he ranks 178 out of 182 players in field goal shooting percentage at 35% (league average is 44.7%), and is 10th-worst in True Shooting percentage — which combines 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws — at 44.9%.

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When parsing through his entire game so far, where does the No. 1 overall pick in the draft rank among his fellow rookies?

Respected ESPN NBA draft analyst Mike Schmitz revealed his rookie power rankings (subscription needed) Tuesday, and slotted Cunningham third behind Cleveland’s Evan Mobley and Toronto’s Scottie Barnes, adding Cunningham would be No. 2 if not for the ankle injury which caused him to miss five games.

Schmitz said Cunningham remains “my favorite to capture Rookie of the Year honors,” and mentioned the progress the 6-foot-6 point guard has made recently after starting his career an unsightly 1-for-21 from 3-point range: He’s averaging 16.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and two steals on 54% shooting on 2-pointers and 27.3% from 3 over his past five games, which includes wins over Toronto and Indiana.

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“Cunningham will never generate the type of awe fans feel from a Mobley block, a Jalen Green dunk or a Barnes steal,” Schmitz wrote.

“The late-game heroics that characterized Cunningham at the collegiate level have followed him to the NBA, at least in spurts. The Pistons also are starting to weaponize him in more creative ways, slipping him out of screens and activating his catch-and-shoot jumper by using him as the back screener in Spain pick-and-rolls.

“We’re also starting to see more of the court vision that played a big role in my Luka Doncic comparison thanks to Cunningham’s patience in the pocket and ability to find both the roller and the weakside corner. Cunningham’s strength has allowed him to get wherever he wants on the floor, dislodging defenders ranging from Kevin Durant to Jae’Sean Tate to OG Anunoby. Cunningham is shiftier than he looks at first glance, and his subtle changes of direction combined with his power and ambidexterity around the rim have played a big role in Cunningham ranking 10th in the NBA in points per direct via isolations, according to Second Spectrum.”

The Pistons are 4-7 with Cunningham in the lineup and 0-5 without him, their 4-12 record only ahead of Orlando (4-14) in the Eastern Conference. He’s averaging 14.1 points, 6.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 3.2 turnovers over 31.6 minutes per game.

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Schmitz, like our Jeff Seidel, commended Cunningham for his maturity and leadership, specifically during Isaiah Stewart’s rage Sunday against the Lakers. He notched his first career triple-double with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the disheartening 121-116 loss to the Lakers, but shot 6-for-21 overall, 1-for-9 on 3s.

Schmitz highlighted a few areas of improvement needed from the 20-year-old.

“Cunningham is too loose of a decision-maker, has his defensive lapses off the ball and is still struggling to translate his smooth step-back jumper to the NBA line.

“But the No. 1 pick’s innate sense of late-game calm is nearly impossible to teach, and as his jumper stabilizes and the Pistons learn how to best use him, it won’t be long before he is in full contention for ROY.”

Mobley, picked No. 3 pick in July’s draft, has been the best rookie, productive on both ends to help the Cavaliers to a 9-5 start. He’s currently out a few weeks with an elbow injury and the team has lost all three games he has missed. Mobley has averaged 14.6 points, eight rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 blocks.

Schmitz said he’d still take Cunningham No. 1 if the draft were right now, but “Mobley has made it a compelling conversation, reviving the Cavs in the process.”

“No rookie has had more of an impact on his respective team than Mobley, who has turned the Cavaliers into a playoff contender with his defensive versatility and offensive skill set at just 20 years old,” Schmitz wrote, while also breaking down film with the rookie big man. “The Cavs’ defense is allowing 8.9 points fewer points per 100 possessions when Mobley is in the game than when he sits. Cunningham has generated more points for himself and his teammates, and Barnes has been a revelation in Toronto, but Mobley has done everything on both ends of the floor.”

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Barnes went fourth and has shown considerable improvement offensively from his days at Florida State. He’s averaging 14.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.1 steals.

Orlando forward Franz Wagner (Michigan) is fourth on Schmitz’s ranking. He was the No. 8 pick in the draft and averages 12.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and two assists, shooting 36% from 3-point range (league average is 34.3%).

Schmitz slotted Houston guard Jalen Green seventh. The No. 2 pick is averaging 14.2 points and 2.4 assists, while shooting poorly (37.2% overall, 27.4% from 3).

Green and Mobley were in contention for the No. 1 pick by the Pistons, and both met and worked out for them — as did Cunningham — in the days leading up to the draft.

For more on the rookies, here is Schmitz’s full analysis.

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