Despite up-and-down start, Pistons see growth in rookie Cade Cunningham

Detroit News
By Steve Kornacki |  Special to The Detroit News

Cade Cunningham’s last performance against the Los Angeles Lakers got somewhat lost amid the Isaiah Stewart-LeBron James skirmish in last weekend’s loss at Little Caesars Arena.

Cunningham had 13 points and season highs of 12 rebounds and 10 assists in joining Grant Hill and Dave DeBusschere — two of the magical names in franchise history — as the only Pistons rookies to record a triple-double, via BasketballReference.com.

Cunningham became the youngest Piston at 20 years, 57 days old to record a triple-double, and only seven players in NBA history recorded one at a younger age. He additionally recorded two steals in that game against the Lakers.

However, it’s been an up-and-down rookie season for Cunningham, who missed the first four games and most of training camp with an ankle injury. Entering play Sunday, he was averaging 12.9 points (fifth among rookies), 6.2 rebounds (fourth), five assists (second) and 1.36 seals (second) in 31.1 minutes per game (third).

While solid, those numbers are a bit below the expectations a No. 1 overall pick brings into the league. Cunningham (6-foot-6, 217 pounds) had averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his only season at Oklahoma State.

Cunningham attracts attention at every stop, and Pistons coach Dwane Casey addressed questions about his highly-valued addition during the team’s trip to Los Angeles, where Detroit lost Friday to the Clippers.

Casey was asked how he narrows the focus for Cunningham and has begun the rookie’s education.

“One is what you’re looking for and what you see on the court,” Casey said. “What do you see defensively? Are you in help position? Who should be the low man? Realizing where your positioning should be.

“Offensively, what are you looking at with the basketball? Are you seeing the help behind the player you’re going to pass it to? If you’re getting blitzed, what are your outlets? Where are you positioning your players? Do you keep your dribble? That’s one area of growth he’s really made strides in because he’s seen a couple teams blitzing. He’s handled it very well — back dribbles with poise and confidence. Doesn’t get rattled.”

More: Pistons mailbag: Even with Cade Cunningham, time, patience required for this rebuild

Casey touched on Cunningham’s development when he doesn’t possess the ball.

“So, all those things are easy to see and measure with a guy like that with the basketball. The harder ones are rebounding, all those hustle plays which he gets done,” he said. “But now he has to see the nuances of spacing — when to space, when to flash, when to present yourself for pick-and-roll situations.

“There are so many things that they have to learn that you almost have to have a checklist of things for growth in different areas, and then our young guys are making steps in areas that are eventually going to equate to winning.”

Cunningham is always going to handle the ball in the backcourt, but has done even more than he will when injured point guard Killian Hayes (thumb) returns to the lineup. His 47 turnovers are most on the team, but his 70 assists also are tops.

He always shows glimpses of his great potential, and on some nights it all comes together.

Cunningham had a career-high 25 points Nov. 15 against the Sacramento Kings, and also had eight rebounds and eight assists in what was probably his best outing. He shot 5-for-11 on 3-pointers for one of the few games in which he made a positive impact beyond the arc.

Cunningham is shooting 23.8% from deep for the season, and is on a 4-for-27 stretch in the last four games.

He’s also shooting a subpar 33.2% on all field-goal attempts, but his 86.7% free throw mark is exemplary.

“His shooting hasn’t come around yet,” Casey said, “but it goes back to the first question. How do you measure that? Is he taking the right shots? Which he is, the open shots, and some of the tough shots he makes. He’s made those his whole career. As long as he’s taking the right shots, we’re going to live with the results. And eventually he’s going to make those shots.

“And one thing about him, guys don’t forget how to shoot.”

Casey spoke of why the Pistons picked him No. 1, and why they are still pleased with the decision. He touched on what sold the organization on Cunningham.

“His overall game played into that — his passing, his shooting, his basketball IQ, just his overall basketball play,” Casey said. “His leadership ability. His ability to run a team, to connect with his teammates. All those things were variables in terms of us selecting him.

“Those things are carrying over now.”

Casey liked Cunningham’s second-half turnaround in Friday’s 107-96 loss to the Clippers at Staples Center.

He credited Cunningham and forward Jerami Grant for coming back from struggling first halves to provide the momentum to trim a 29-point deficit to 11 at the end of the game. Cunningham had eight of his 10 points after intermission.

“That’s why I put Cade back in — to try to get him to get into a rhythm not only shooting the ball but defensively,” Casey said. “We got some stops. You start to feel good about yourself. It gives us a little bit more energy.”

Cunningham, like the young Pistons themselves, is a work in progress who keeps making the progress Casey wants to see.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

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