Cade Cunningham’s career night on Tuesday was made even more impressive by what he didn’t do.
He played nearly 40 minutes during the Detroit Pistons’ close 110-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets, and scored a career-high 34 points to go with eight assists, eight rebounds and four blocks. Only one other rookie in NBA history has hit those benchmarks in a single game — Michael Jordan.
FROM LAST NIGHT: Cunningham’s career night not enough as Pistons lose to Nuggets
Cunningham was efficient, making 14 of his 26 shot attempts and six of his nine 3-pointers. The only thing he didn’t do was attempt a free throw.
Despite playing all but eight minutes of the game and initiating contact on several drives to the rim, he wasn’t able to get a whistle. The Nuggets attempted 31 free throws, 17 more than the Pistons. While Detroit has struggled with excessive fouling, Cunningham’s inability to draw a shooting foul was part of the equation as well on Tuesday.
He has found his rhythm as a scorer, but he hasn’t drawn many whistles this season relative to his shot attempts at the rim. The solution to the problem could simply be time and patience.
Dwane Casey insinuated that officials are missing potential fouls.
“He’s a gamer,” Casey said. “He’s going to the basket. He’s not getting the whistle. He’s got to keep his composure, and it’s tough. I feel for him, because he’s going in there getting hit and he’s not getting those calls. I was just telling him to talk to officials and communicate with them, the right way. Because he’s going to be in this league a long time, and these officials are not going anywhere.
“He’s gotta talk to them because we were watching the film, he’s getting hit but they’re missing the calls, which they’re going to miss some of them. But he’s gotta keep attacking and using his size and length.”
Cunningham’s lack of foul shots is one of the few blemishes on his otherwise versatile offensive game. Tuesday was a showcase of his various strengths, as he knocked down several 3-pointers off of the dribble, posted up smaller defenders and created lanes to the basket.
But he’s taken just 79 free throws in 38 games, a hair over two attempts per game. According to Cleaning The Glass, Cunningham drew fouls on just 4.7% of his shots entering Tuesday. That ranks in the 28th percentile among wings.
Tuesday was his 16th game this season without attempting a free throw. Cunningham doesn’t pressure the rim as much as many of the NBA’s highest-scoring guards and wings, but there’s still a disparity between his ability to put defenders in bad positions and the calls he’s gotten so far. He’s fouled on the ground more than the average guard or wing but that changes drastically when looking at shooting fouls.
“Maybe use my voice more,” Cunningham said on what he could do to get more whistles. “Maybe yell, or something. Just continue to play the game. We might need to win more games to get a little bit more respect from the referees for them to blow the whistle for us. We can only control what we can control.”
Regardless, Tuesday was the best game of his young career. He went toe-to-toe with Nikola Jokic, the NBA’s 2021-22 MVP who also had a big night. Jokic finished with 28 points, 21 rebounds and nine assists to help the Nuggets fend off a feisty Pistons team.
A pull-up 3 by Cunningham cut the deficit to 99-96 midway through the fourth quarter. Detroit simply couldn’t make shots down the stretch.
Cunningham, who played 36-plus minutes for the third night in a row, appeared to run out of steam late. He missed a pair of shots in the final minute, and other than Frank Jackson (11 points, six in the fourth quarter) no one else was able to pick up the slack. Cunningham and Jackson shot a combined 7-for-16 in the final period.
The rest of the team shot 2-for-9.
But it was a signature game for Cunningham, who is in the midst of his best month as a pro. In 13 January games, he’s averaging 17.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks while shooting 45.5% overall and 38.2% from 3.
“It’s definitely surreal,” Cunningham said. “I’ve imagined these moments so much that I don’t feel out of place when I’m out there. Nothing feels fake to me. Just being in the moment, after dreaming about it for so long, I’m proud of myself for putting myself in this position. I’m just happy to be here, playing the game I love.”
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