Cunningham, Pistons continue to learn in trial-by-fire approach

Detroit News

Washington, D.C. — It took Cade Cunningham only a couple of minutes to get his first personal foul, and then they seemed to come in bunches during the Pistons’ 103-94 loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday night.

The second followed at the 4:36 mark, then he headed to the bench for a rest. The third foul came with 6:58 remaining in the second quarter, and the fourth within 20 seconds after halftime. The rookie was playing aggressive defense with his hands, and the officials weren’t going to let it go unchecked.

Coach Dwane Casey had to roll the dice on whether to pull Cunningham from the game, but he took a calculated gamble and left Cunningham in. Within two minutes, there was a close call, with Cunningham driving to the basket, and a defender jumping in the way to take the offensive foul. The officials called it that way, but Casey challenged the call.

After video review, the call was overturned and Cunningham escaped getting his fifth foul with about 22 minutes left in the game.

Cunningham finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes, but he finished 5-of-16 from the field, including missing all five of his 3-point attempts. With the foul trouble, it was more difficult for the rookie to get ingrained into the flow of the game, but he also will have to learn to adjust his game to the way the officials are calling the game.

“He had some very foolish fouls in situations, reaching and having no chance to get the ball, and you put yourself in that position,” Casey said. “(We told him to) play with your feet and chest. That’s one reason why we left him in there, to see if you can play with three fouls.

“In certain situations, just play with your chest, instead of reaching. It looks good, but nine times out of 10, you’re going to get the arm or not the ball. It’s a learning experience for him … but we had to call a challenge to keep getting the fifth. You’ve got to play smarter in those situations.”

Cunningham is regarded as a pretty good defender, and with his size, he can guard several positions, but with that, he sometimes gets himself in trouble because he’s overly aggressive. When he’s trying to deny drives to the basket, or just by keeping his hands in the cookie jar, trying to get steals, he can get into foul trouble quickly.

That’s been the message to Cunningham, and as he learns the nuances of the NBA and how officials are going to call games, it’s just a learning process, with some good and some bad in between.

“He’s learning and we’re learning about him. Is he disciplined enough like most young players, to play with three fouls in those situations?” Casey said. “Let’s put out the first fire and don’t make the silly fouls. I’d rather for him to knock somebody on their behind with a hard foul than the ticky-tack reaching late and those types of things.

“He’s learning. I like the way he played with three for a while, but just don’t get the first three.”

‘Into the fire’

Marvin Bagley III had a pretty good Pistons debut, with 10 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes against the Wizards.

There wasn’t much consideration to trying to bring the big man along slowly and try to let him get acclimated slowly. He played with the second unit and split time between playing center and then playing as the power forward alongside Kelly Olynyk.

It was a quick transition, as Bagley is still learning some of the terminology and plays, but Casey said there is some familiarity that will help him in the short term.

“Do I ease him in? No, he’s going to be into the fire,” Casey said. “The schemes and sets and that type of thing, we’ll be keeping it simple while he’s out there. We have some things that are just basic offensive looks that we want to make sure he understands and gets a feel for, but he’ll get his opportunities.”

In Bagley, the Pistons get an athletic big man who has a different set of strengths than either Olynyk or Isaiah Stewart in the paint. That was some of the appeal of trading for Bagley, in that he could be a post presence with his back to the basket who was more physical.

“There’s nothing (different) if you’re athletic enough in the pick-and-roll to go up and get a lob and finish it once you do catch it in there, and that’s where he has an advantage,” Casey said. “He’s long, he can go up and get it and finish it, so it won’t be anything that’s new, but I’m sure that in certain situations, his athleticism should be able to show.

“Whether he does it or not, I can’t guarantee that, but he should be able to show in certain situations and certain plays that we have. It’s not a knock on Kelly, or Isaiah, but it’s just certain things that they can’t do athletically in traffic that I think and hope that Marvin will be able to do.”

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Pistons at Celtics

Tipoff: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, TD Garden, Boston

TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM

Outlook: After some struggles, the Celtics (33-25) have turned their fortunes with an eight-game win streak, including a 102-93 victory in Detroit on Feb. 4. The Pistons (12-45) have lost eight straight games.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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