Detroit — The scene was something akin to a superhero coming to the rescue: Clark Kent jumping in the phone booth to change into Superman, or maybe Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man when he’s most needed.
The Pistons were in overtime last week against the Washington Wizards, and Cunningham, who had pedestrian production in regulation, turned it on in the extra session. On four possessions, he gave the Pistons life, and a chance to end a long losing streak.
Cunningham drove, pulled back and reset, then got around Daniel Gafford for a basket.
The rookie drove, spun and finished with a lefty lay-in against Kyle Kuzma.
He drove from the left wing, got to the middle and hooked over Gafford.
Cunningham, again guarded by Gafford, prodded and finished again over the bigger defender.
That’s normally Jerami Grant’s time to get the ball, but with the way he was going, coach Dwane Casey liked every matchup Cunningham had, and gave Cunningham the green light. The Pistons lost the game, but it was a prelude to what the rest of the season could hold — and the longer-term — for the rookie.
In his last six games, Cunningham is averaging 22.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and four assists, while shooting 52% on 3-pointers and 48% from the field.
None of that is unexpected from Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick, but the fact he’s turned things around so quickly and dramatically after missing the first few games of the season is a surprise.
In his first 14 games, Cunningham shot 24% from 3 and posted 12.9 points, but in the latest stretch, he’s found his shooting touch from distance, which has set him apart from most rookies.
“His 3-point shooting is coming around, and we expected it to come around pretty quick — quicker than I thought it would,” Casey said. “His feel for the game in certain situations, and the passes and reads he’s making have jumped out pretty quick — quicker than most rookies.”
Cunningham is looking like everything the Pistons wanted — and needed — to augment their roster that had some building blocks, but Cunningham looks to be a corner piece to the long-term puzzle, despite what Hall of Fame guard Dave Bing opines.
There are still hurdles for Cunningham and the young core to overcome. The biggest of those is losing and avoiding the pitfalls of developing a losing culture. At 4-22, the Pistons have the league’s worst record, but the growth mindset is something that Cunningham is coming to embrace, even through the losses.
“It’s definitely tough. It’s not something I’ve been through before, but at the same time, I’m starting to love the process and just trying to lock in each day, trying to get better, trying to add something that I can bring to the equation to help us and that’s what we’re all trying to do,” Cunningham said. “It sucks losing, so we’ve got to put a stop to it.”
That’s a sentiment Casey echoes, and as the prized rookie has developed, the focus isn’t singularly on Cunningham. The organization wants to ensure that last year’s 20-52 record and the slow start this season are stepping stones to success, not a harbinger of things to come.
“What you don’t want to do is get used to (losing). You want to create winning habits, and even though I think (Cunningham) is creating winning habits, we’re not getting the benefits of it by winning,” Casey said. “That’s the difference if you have a group of young guys together. A lot of times, you see them growing.”
A new opportunity
One of the transitions in Cunningham’s recent success is putting the ball in his hands so he can facilitate the offense more. Casey and the organization have maintained that Cunningham and Killian Hayes, one of last year’s first-round picks, are more co-point guards than either one being the bell cow.
That thought will be amplified because the team’s leading scorer, Jerami Grant, will be out for at least six weeks because of a thumb injury. It’s going to accelerate Cunningham’s push to become a more complete player, both on and off the ball, and finding his niche as a leader on the team.
“We just have a better feel for when I’m going to have it and when I’m off the ball. I like mixing it up a little bit, and I definitely like having the ball in my hands, but Killian makes plays for me,” Cunningham said. “I get some easy catch-and-shoot balls like that, too. I’ve been able to start making shots from a number of different spots, so I mean, having the ball helps, but I don’t think that’s the only reason why.
“We’ve had spurts where we’ve been really good together. I love playing with Killian — I’ve been saying that for a while. He flows through the game, and he’s easy to play with. Now, it’s just about us, continuing to keep our foot on the gas for longer.”
Cunningham seems to prioritize the team success over individual accolades, which is the piece the Pistons thought they were getting in adding another piece to their core in the draft.
He’s been level-headed and he’s more like the quarterback, trying to pull everything together. Cunningham is becoming a vocal leader in the locker room, as well as the developing leader on the court. That will have more time to show, especially with Grant’s absence.
“He was raised well and he was coached well coming in. I think we’re trying to be real with each other in the locker room and real with through each other on the court,” second-year forward Saddiq Bey said. “I think what he’s saying, and I think what all of us are saying in the media is we mean that genuinely.”
It’s not just lip service. The few months he’s had in the league look to be the real deal.
Even if he hasn’t evolved to the level of superhero yet, he’s well on his way.
And it’s only been 20 games.