He sat down at a table stacked with Pistons-themed hats, mini-basketballs and two stacks of posters. With the help of two team staff members, Cunningham picked up each item, one-by-one, and autographed all of them. After 20 minutes, he still had unsigned posters in front of him.
On the court, the 20-year-old is establishing himself as a franchise player. The Pistons haven’t had a rookie that possesses Cunningham’s star power since Grant Hill in 1994. He has given this rebuilding season a jolt of excitement and energized a fan base that hasn’t seen a playoff win since 2008. After a strong month of January, Cunningham is firmly in the mix to win Rookie of the Year.
Off the court, he’s adapting to NBA life and No. 1 pick expectations. He has already played 41 games this season, more than the 27 he played as a freshman at Oklahoma State. Due to injuries, he has spent a large portion of the season as the top offensive option. Fans line up before and after games for autographs and photos.
Even on off days, he’s in-demand.
Cunningham sat down with the Free Press last week to discuss his “surreal” first season, first impressions and staying in the moment.
Editor’s note: Conversation edited for brevity and clarity. Come back Monday for part II of the conversation, on the Rookie of the Year race, conversations with Ben Wallace and the Pistons’ improved play.
What has it been like being the No. 1 pick? There’s responsibility that comes with that. You’re signing autographs now, before and after games as well. It seems like you relish and take pride in that.
I feel lucky to have my jersey being worn by so many people in the arena. To see my number, my name on so many things in the arena, it means a lot to me. For people to care that much, I try to show love back and at least sign it for them if I can.
Is that something you’ve always done? Back in college, and not sure if it’s the same in high school, but high school as well?
If it’s a kid or somebody that looks up to me or saw me as an influence to them, I’ll sign something for them. Growing up, I admired when guys took time out to do something like that for the kids. So I knew whenever I made it to that point, I wanted to do the same thing.
The city of Detroit loved it on draft night when you came out wearing buffs. You told the city you were all the way turned up. Why was it important for you to make a strong first impression? It’s not often that guys who are drafted that early try to sell themselves to their new city to that extent.
I already had a lot of respect for the city, for the culture and stuff going on. When I realized I was most likely going to go to Detroit through the lottery, and after meeting with the team, I felt like it was something that flowed. I found a free ticket to wear some buffs for real, so I threw them on and then ran with it.
You were already wanting to wear them.
Right! I’m like shoot, I can get some now and I can wear them in the draft? I’m gonna go ahead and wear some.
How would you describe your rookie season in one word?
One word? That’s tough. Let me think. I’ve learned so much. It’s tough because it’s been so many different things. It’s been great moments, there’s been ugly moments. I’m trying to think of a word that sums all of that up. (Looks up at two Pistons staffers) Y’all got anything in mind? It’s been a learning experience, I’ll say two words. Learning experience.
How would you describe the learning aspect? Especially with Jerami Grant getting injured. You’ve been placed in a role where you have to be the guy, like on Sunday (vs. Cleveland), stepping up and hitting those clutch shots.
The basketball side of it, I’ve definitely learned a lot just getting accustomed to the game, the speed and everything like that. More than anything, my first year being in the NBA, being the pick that I was and just the things that come with that, that’s been the main thing where I’ve learned more about myself and just how I can do things more than anything, I’d say.
What’s been the challenge of learning how to respond to tough moments? There’s a lot more games being played than in college, so you don’t get as much time between tough losses to prepare.
That’s been the thing, just finding a way to put good days behind you and not harp on those, have those later on to where you’re not preparing yourself for the future, but also you have to throw away the ugly days because there’s going to be days where it’s just not going your way. I’m probably the most conscious I’ve been about keeping my mind in the right place and just feeling in the moment.
Most guys who are drafted where you’re drafted have been winners all of their life. Now you’re coming into a situation where, and you’ve talked about it after games, there’s more of a big-picture perspective knowing that you’re working toward what could come later, and you have to take those lumps now.
There’s been times this season where we’ve had some ugly losses where it’s tough to sit on the bench during the game and just sit there and be in that moment. I’ve tried to learn to fully accept those moments and fully be there, you know what I mean? You can’t run. In your head, you can’t take yourself to another place. You just have to learn from where you’re at and make sure you don’t put yourself in that position next time.
You do a good job of staying in the moment. We saw it on Sunday. You went 0-for-10 in the first half, and then you have a strong second half and the team comes back and wins. Growing up, was that something that was taught to you, just being able to handle the game play-by-play and not get caught up in the moment?
I’ve always been taught to have a short memory in basketball, especially if you feel like you’ve put the work in. I always trust the next shot, but it’s been as far back as when I played football, taking it possession-by-possession. Your last read isn’t going to be the next read you’re going to make. Every play, you have to see it for what it is and make new decisions and try to make the best one.
Your dad, Keith Cunningham, committed to play quarterback at Texas Tech. There’s obviously some similarities between being a lead ball-handler in the NBA. As a quarterback, you can throw a pick but still have to go out next drive and try to score a touchdown.
Yeah, definitely. My pops put a lot of knowledge in me when it comes to that stuff. He was my offensive coordinator coaching me at quarterback after he played. I had him in real-time talking me through a lot of those situations in those moments, and I use a lot of that stuff now in basketball, for sure.
How much do you pay attention to —
Surreal would be the word (to describe my first season). Surreal is my word.
Haha, I knew it would come eventually.