Cade Cunningham must get used to carrying greater workload for Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons are 6-5 since Feb. 16. In that span, they have a net rating of minus-1.6. They’re winning and losing games by close margins, and it has forced them to lean even harder on their blossoming rookie point guard.

Cade Cunningham is averaging 32.5 minutes per game this season, but that has increased to 35.8 minutes during that 11-game span, leading all rookies. Multiple injuries to the backcourt have increased his workload in March, averaging 38 per game this month.

With Killian Hayes, Frank Jackson, Hamidou Diallo and Rodney McGruder in street clothes Friday, he tallied 41 minutes against the Boston Celtics and Sunday played a career-high 44 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers.

He was visibly gassed at the end of Friday’s loss, which saw him check in after just a couple of minutes of rest early in the fourth quarter, after the bench gave up an 11-0 Celtics run. After a torrid start, he missed all six of his fourth-quarter shots.

Cunningham fared better in the final period against the Clippers on Sunday, scoring eight points on 4-for-7 shooting and dishing four assists while playing the final 12 minutes.

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The coaching staff is aware Cunningham is playing a lot of minutes, but it’s a balancing act as the team tries to stay competitive while awaiting the return of multiple players.

“We have to be careful with that,” coach Dwane Casey said after the Pistons’ 106-102 loss to the Clippers. “That has a lot to do with Killian out. We’re competing and that’s a lot to ask of (Saben Lee) to go in there and close the game out. Cade’s producing for us. He’s getting things done in certain areas. I thought he had a good, solid defensive game. He had nine rebounds. Hard to take a guy out, but we have to watch his minutes and not worry about giving some other guys some opportunities. That will take care of itself once Killian and Rodney come back.”

Cunningham has firmly established himself as a clutch player. As a freshman at Oklahoma State, he led the country with 106 points scored in clutch situations. The second-highest player had 63. He’s leading all rookies in clutch points this season with 61. But it’s not just his scoring that makes him so useful at the end of games. He has tallied timely blocks and charges, and found open teammates for big baskets.

Since Feb. 16, Cunningham is tied for eighth in the NBA with 93 minutes played in the fourth quarter. That span has seen him play some of his best basketball this season, averaging 22.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and six assists in the past 11 games. Instead of hitting a rookie wall, Cunningham is getting better. He credited the Pistons’ training staff and his non-gameday routine for being able to handle increased minutes.

“Just taking care of my body as much as I can,” Cunningham said. “When I’m not playing, eating right, getting rest, all those things. Everything adds up so just trying to do all the little things the right way. My body feels good. I could play tomorrow if I needed to. We have a big time training staff, too. They take care of me.”

Cade Cunningham just misses triple-double, ex-Pistons pull Clippers to 106-102 win ]

This is all good practice for the future, as the Pistons will need to ride Cunningham as they move from rebuilding to competing for a playoff spot. Cunningham will have some pressure taken off of him once Hayes, Jackson and others return from injury, but his status as the late-game alpha dog won’t change.

“Our minutes were up last night, but that’s what it’s going to feel like when we get ready for the playoffs, or whatever,” Casey said after practice Saturday. “So we’re working next summer, note how that felt, that exhaustion felt down the stretch because we took some tired shots, Cade had some tired shots down the stretch. That’s also on me as a coach. But we’ve gotta get used to those extended minutes and heavy loads, the usage, and understand what it takes to play within that and how it feels physically. It’s going to be huge for us.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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