The Detroit Pistons have had a fair share of tough losses this season. After games, their 20-year-old first-round pick has often taken on the task of explaining those losses to the media.
Cade Cunningham is barely two months into his first NBA season, but he sees the big picture. He has a knack for saying the right thing. He uplifts teammates and holds himself accountable when the team falls short, even though he’s far down the list of reasons why the Pistons are 4-22, the worst record in the league.
Cunningham has taken the podium after good individual games and underwhelming ones. He has talked frequently during the Pistons’ current 12-game losing streak, including after blown double-digit leads against the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans, and after a blowout against a middling Portland Trail Blazers team that was without its star player, Damian Lillard.
He talks as though he knows, despite this rough stretch, better times are ahead.
“I love where we’re at now,” Cunningham said on Nov. 30, after he scored 26 points in an 18-point loss to the Blazers. “Obviously we’re going through some adversity right now, trying to find a way to win games. I love the guys that I’m with. I love my job. I love what I’m doing everyday. Just trying to get better each and every day and stack good days together to keep good and get better.”
After the Pistons blew a 15-point first-half lead against the Pelicans on Dec. 10, Cunningham looked inward.
“It’s definitely tough,” he said of losing this many games for the first time in his life. “It’s not something I’ve been through before. 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. That’s what I’m trying to do. It sucks, losing. Gotta put a stop to it.”
Cunningham’s maturity and leadership were qualities that appealed to the Pistons during the pre-draft process, and those qualities have been present in Cunningham through the first third of the season. All of Cunningham’s coaches, at each step of his career, have been impressed by his sense of the moment and desire to be a voice in the locker room.
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton met Cunningham for the first time when he was a freshman at Arlington Bowie High School in Texas. He initially assumed Cunningham for a senior. Boynton recalled how Cunningham looked him in the eye and gave a firm handshake as he introduced himself.
“His parents are the salt of the earth type of people,” Boynton told the Free Press in July. “Just blue collar, hardworking folks. They’re not asking for favors, they don’t want any special treatment. They want their kids to work hard, to be treated fairly, to have the things that they earned. And that was what was instilled in him early.”
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With the Pistons, Cunningham has carried himself more like a veteran than a rookie. He has found his voice in the locker room, and is constantly in his teammate’s ears during games. Dwane Casey has been coaching in the NBA since 1994, and couldn’t recall being around another rookie with Cunningham’s leadership ability.
“He’s a natural leader, and that’s one reason he was so valuable in the draft was his leadership,” Casey said. “Of course, he’s got a lot of things to learn and grow to on the court. But the leadership, the moxie, the understanding of the game within the game, he has that coming in from a college situation. He’s that guy that, at some point in his career, is going to be the guy as far as the voice in the locker room, the voice on the court. He understands, he’s earning his keep. He’s not going to walk in and say ‘Hey, listen to me, I’m Cade Cunningham.’ That’s what he’s doing and he’s doing a good job of finding his spots, picking his spots to interject his voice, interject his thoughts for what we need to be doing. A lot of times, when he speaks, he’s right on point.
“It’s unusual, but it’s a gift that he has,” Casey continued. “You have to respect it, because nine times out of 10 he’s telling the truth.”
After missing training camp and preseason, Cunningham is hitting his stride. In his last six games, he’s averaging 22.7 points on 47.7% overall shooting, 52.4% shooting from 3, 5.5 rebounds, four assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks and 4.8 turnovers. It hasn’t translated to winning, and wins will be hard to come by as the Pistons await the returns of Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk.
But Cunningham is settling in, and is beginning to fill the many roles the Pistons drafted him to fill. He’s the face of Detroit’s restoring, and he’s doing his part to live up to the job.
“I feel like my voice is heard in the locker room,” Cunningham said. “I think I have a respected voice in the locker room. That hasn’t been a problem for me. We have a good group of guys. We have a bunch of guys who like each other, want to win for each other. It’s about us putting that to action.”
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