Is Cade Cunningham ‘that guy’ for the Detroit Pistons? Why do we have to decide now?

Detroit Free Press

Maybe you’ve seen the numbers. The shooting percentages and point, rebound and assist averages you thought you’d see from the Detroit Pistons’ 2021 No. 1 overall pick.

Or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’ve tuned out, because Cade Cunningham started slowly, and his team started even slower. Cellar-dweller slow, if we’re being honest. And so maybe the numbers don’t matter to you at all.

But they’re rising amid all the losing — 13 straight games, if you’re counting, after the Pistons 122-113 loss at Indiana on Thursday night. Of course, compiling good numbers on a losing team is something Andrea Bargnani once did.

So, yeah, context.

And, also, yeah, Bargnani was never “that guy.” Not for the Toronto Raptors or the New York Knicks or the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t “that guy” for any team in the 10 years after the Raptors took him No. 1 overall in 2006.

Why, then, are we talking about Bargnani?

Numbers. Hundreds of NBA players have put up the kind of numbers that Bargnani put up during his peak from 2010-12 — roughly 20 points a game, a solid shooting percentage, a half-dozen rebounds and a couple of assists. You know, the kind of numbers Cunningham is putting up now.

Which means it’s easy to make too much of them. In Cunningham’s case, though, it would be foolhardy to dismiss what he has done the last couple of weeks.

For one, he’s a rookie on a struggling team, and one with little offensive flow. In fact, he is the flow.

For another, he’s the No. 1 overall pick, and NBA veterans’ natural competitive juices make him a target. Also making him a target is that he’s the team’s best player, especially with Jerami Grant out with a thumb injury.

All of which make his averages over six games entering Thursday — 22.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and four assists — more noteworthy. He’s been efficient, too, shooting 47.7% from the field and 52.4% on 3-pointers.

For most shooters — and Cunningham is definitely a shooter — those percentages are flipped. But for Cunningham, at least for now, the splits make sense.

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His biggest adjustment remains gauging the speed of closeouts on pull-up jumpers inside the 3-point line and navigating opponents’ length and athleticism at the rim. When the Pistons played the Nets on Sunday night, Kevin Durant blocked Cunningham’s pull-up near the elbow, chasing him from the weak side in a flash.

Durant is 7 feet tall and cat-quick. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he’s one of the rangiest defenders in the league. Cunningham, meanwhile, is still learning how to get his shot off the closer he gets to the paint.

Yet he is showing moments. More and more each night.

Also on Sunday, Cunningham got the ball near the top of the key as Durant switched onto him. He began by dribbling between his legs, right to left, to balance himself. From there, he took another dribble and paused in space, a hesitation that froze Durant for a split-second.

Cunningham then tore off down the right side of the lane, Durant on his left hip, and he slowed just before he got to the rim, keeping Durant back and to his left side.

He finished with a scoop off the glass.

It was fluid and intentional, yet somehow improvisational. And when coach Dwane Casey talks about Cunningham never getting “sped” up, this is partly what he means.

He beat one of the best perimeter defenders in the game off the dribble with ease, and he did so with a change of direction followed by a change of speed, all the while using the geometry of the court to guide him.

What he didn’t do was take the ball, take a hard dribble, and fly to the rim. He is not that kind of player. He doesn’t have to be.

Just as he showed in an overtime loss to the Washington Wizards last week, when he scored four consecutive possessions in the extra period to give the Pistons a chance to win. All four buckets came on drives.

The Pistons drafted Cunningham because he can shoot, pass, rebound, defend and lead a locker room. He is doing all of that now.

They drafted him because he can run a team. He is doing that now, too, and will get even more possessions with the ball in his hands in Grant’s absence.

That he is the point guard is what made Dave Bing’s comments during the Pistons-Nets broadcast Sunday — “I don’t think he’s a guy you can build a team around — we still gotta get that guy, we don’t have it yet, in my opinion” said the former Pistons star and former Detroit mayor — so perplexing. His comment about the team not being able to build around Cunningham was one thing.

It’s easy to look at his lack of a 40-inch vertical and say he isn’t “that guy.”

But that the team needed to draft a point guard?

Bing said this, too.

Never have there been more position-less players in the NBA. Yet no matter what we call it, every team still needs a player (or two) to bring the ball up the court and get a team into its offense.

Cunningham is that guy. Which is to say he is a point guard.

Is he “that guy” too?

Bing may not think so, and plenty of others remain skeptical because he isn’t quite like anyone else.

He’s also six weeks into his career. And that’s way too soon to say he’s not.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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