Cade Cunningham’s offensive bag is deep.
He can post up smaller defenders and move bigger defenders out of the way with a bump from his shoulder. He is comfortable with his pull-up jumper and stepback 3-pointers and can operate from midrange. We’ve seen him take over games, and he’s already proven he can be a go-to player in clutch situations.
The Detroit Pistons‘ 106-103 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday was another example of Cunningham closing out the win, and he did so by doing something he hasn’t done consistently this season — initiating trips to the free throw line. With 46.8 seconds remaining, Cunningham drove into Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro and got a whistle. He knocked down both free throws to snap a 17-5 Cleveland run and give the Pistons a 104-103 lead.
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On Cleveland’s next possession, Cunningham grabbed a rebound in traffic following a missed layup by Jarrett Allen and then was fouled by Evan Mobley. Cunningham went 2-for-2 at the line once again with 28.1 seconds to play, and the Cavaliers missed three 3-pointers on their final possession.
Cunningham knocked down 9 of 10 free throws, tying his season-high in attempts and makes. He’s averaging 2.2 free throw attempts per game this season, one of 11 guards taking fewer than 2.5 attempts while averaging at least 15 points per game, according to NBA Stats. That list includes a handful of the league’s best guards in Klay Thompson, Desmond Bane and CJ McCollum, so it’s not a pressing issue for Cunningham. But it is a growth area, considering Cunningham is around league average in shot attempts in the paint.
“He just was committed to getting to the rim, drawing contact,” Dwane Casey said after practice Friday. “He did a good job of attacking the defense, and the key is, especially down the stretch, that’s a skill to make free throws in the last two or three minutes. And he did that last night. I think he was just committed to driving. I don’t know if he felt like his shot wasn’t falling, so he was attacking. And luckily he made the free throws. That’s something we need from him, is to be aggressive, continue to do that, attack the paint and being physical against the team, especially when they put their best defender on him.”
Cunningham has 18 games this season without a free throw attempt and eight games with at least five. While there are things Cunningham can do to try to get to the line more often, Casey has also said he’s not getting calls that he should be getting. It was particularly glaring on Jan. 25, when Cunningham scored a career-high 34 points against the Denver Nuggets without taking a single free throw. Casey suggested that Cunningham should talk to the referees whenever they miss calls, and Cunningham said he could try yelling more after contact.
According to NBA Stats, the top-five highest-scoring guards and wings — DeMar DeRozan, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Jayson Tatum — are all averaging at least six free throw attempts per game. Among the NBA’s top-20 scorers regardless of position, Kyrie Irving is the only player taking fewer than 4.5 free throws per game.
Cunningham has the tools to join the NBA’s elite scorers and becoming more proficient at drawing contact could accelerate his path to doing so.
“Hopefully the league respects him, because it’s human nature,” Casey said. “Rookies don’t usually get calls. I think the league and the refs respect his skillset and ability to get in the paint. A lot of legit fouls, going in there, drawing contact and trying to finish. That’s something that he’ll grow into is getting those star calls, or whatever you want to call them. The rebound he got was huge, he got it and put us up three, and the one where he hit two by driving to the bucket, that was another one but he got fouled. They were very timely free throws.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.