Cleveland — At first glance, it might be easy to overlook Cade Cunningham.
He’s not the tallest or the fastest or the most athletic player on the court. For what he lacks in those areas, he compensates with his basketball IQ, his feel for the game and his will to win.
The will to win might be his biggest strength.
Cunningham, the Pistons’ No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, had a slow start to the season because of an ankle injury, but he’s making up for that lost time with a strong middle of the season, including being named the NBA Rookie of the Month for January.
His fierce competitive streak resurfaced during All-Star Weekend, when Cunningham was in the spotlight for the Rising Stars Challenge and the Skills Challenge. Cunningham showed his alpha traits among the best first- and second-year players in the league, and he was named Rising Stars MVP after leading Team Barry to the title.
“It’s not really fun for me to play basketball and just being out there playing around. Having some structure and competition is where I get my adrenaline from and where I find my love for the game,” Cunningham told The Detroit News. “I wanted to find that in the Rising Stars Game, too, and having the team I had and the coaches I had, we all had that in common with each other. That’s why we came out with the win.”
When Cunningham’s season started slowly, there was much more focus on others, such as Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes, who were the next three picks in the draft, respectively. The discussions among media members and pundits have had Cunningham ranked below his peers in the race for Rookie of the Year.
It’s almost as if Cunningham used All-Star Weekend to remind all his detractors that he’s still Cade Cunningham, and he hasn’t lost the edge that has garnered him so much respect as he’s developed with this same group throughout the years.
“People act like they forget sometimes, but that’s on (the media). It’s on me every time I go out there to showcase what I’ve got and just be me,” Cunningham told The News. “I’m not really worried about what people are saying — I know what I can do. I’m glad I was able to showcase that.”
Pistons coach Dwane Casey has talked about the “it” factor Cunningham possesses, and although it’s not showing in their 13-45 record, there are spurts where the rookie has shown that he’s just different. It’s a big shot in a close game, a critical pass to an open teammate, just subtly taking over a game at clutch time.
It all looks so easy sometimes for Cunningham to be a rookie and to do some of the things he does, both on and off the court, and he looked to be in his element during All-Star Weekend.
“I love the stage. Having a weekend like this with so many people watching — I mean, we’re all entertainers at the end of the day, so having the lights this bright, it only makes you want to up your game and perform even better,” Cunningham said.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men were merely players in the Rising Stars championship game. Team Barry was trailing, 18-12 in the game up to 25, and Cunningham stepped up as the lead actor.
Though Cunningham had just five points in the final game, he had a hand in seven of the final eight points. He assisted on Jae’Sean Tate’s three-point play to get the lead for good, 20-18. After a free throw by Dyson Daniels, Cunningham hit a clutch 3-pointer in transition to get within one point of victory. On the final play, Cunningham found Franz Wagner, who was fouled and made the game-winning free throw.
After stuffing the stat sheet with 13 points, five rebounds and six assists in the semifinal win, Cunningham found a way to impact winning in the final, not by scoring, but with his all-around game.
“Cade is a competitor — I’ve known that since I played with him in high school. He brought it every day in practice at Montverde,” Barnes said. “You just see how he has that one mentality that he always wants to win. He really has the effort and he’s dedicated to that. That makes him the good player that he is today.
“He’s an all-around player and he can really do it all — pass, shoot, get to the rim and attack. That’s what makes you one of those (rare) players who can do everything.”
That’s where Cunningham excels, in not just doing one thing well. He’s a solid basketball player who just does what his team needs him to do in order to win. Even in an exhibition, he managed to put his fingerprint on the game, and while everyone else was looking to score, he was facilitating to get to the ultimate goal, winning.
“I’ve never really looked at basketball as one aspect, like shooting from the corner or defending. I try to work on getting my hands on every aspect of the game and really making my impact felt,” Cunningham told The News. “That’s what made me stand out out there, and my teammates and everybody contributed to the game. Just playing my full game is what helped me stand out.”
The competitive streak doesn’t just extend to his peers in this draft class. When Cunningham was picked for a different Rising Stars team than Pistons teammates Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, it stoked the flame a little more.
The two teams met in the final game, which put a little more on the line.
“It was fun. We’ve been talking trash for two weeks in advance,” Cunningham said. “To meet up with them in the championship game was how it was supposed to play out, and now I’m about to flex on them with the win.”
Rookie of the year
Even as the No. 1 pick, Cunningham seemingly still plays like he has something to prove. It’s a badge of honor that he carries, and he’s not going to just concede anything because he had a slow start to the season.
He leads all rookies in scoring (15.7) and ranks second in assists (5.2). With the standout seasons that Mobley, Green, Barnes and Josh Giddey are having, it’s going to be a close race to the finish for Rookie of the Year, but Cunningham still has winning the award withinin his sights.
“It’s a big-time award to have. There’s a lot of big-time competition that I’m going up against,” Cunningham said. “We’ve all made our case for it, so I think these last (24) games will really be the deciding factor. I’m excited and I’m going to keep working.”
That tireless work ethic is the fabric that has made Cunningham the competitor that he is. It started with his father, Keith, and continued with his brother, Cannen, who is eight years older. Their brotherly games weren’t about artificially boosting Cade’s confidence by letting him win easily.
In many ways, that prepared him for the rugged battles that he would face at every level in his basketball journey. Playing with the Texas Titans in a high-level AAU program beginning in fourth grade helped in shaping Cunningham’s competitive mindset.
“My dad instilled (that competitiveness) in both of us and then my brother definitely enforced it whenever he was competing against me. He never gave me anything easy; he made sure I was ready,” Cade said. “(Cannen said,) ‘You’re going to get beat up any time you try me until you can actually get me,’ so I think that helped me out a lot.
“It built a fire in me on setting goals on things and going and getting them.”
Cunningham is well on his way to achieving those goals — and it’s easy to see, even at a first glance.