Dwane Casey, vocal as anyone about Cade Cunningham’s Rookie of the Year candidacy, has a go-to response when asked why Cunningham qualifies: The Detroit Pistons’ No. 1 pick has “it.”
But what is “it?” Cunningham provided plenty of examples Tuesday.
“We had Blake (Griffin) a couple years ago when he was healthy,” Casey said. “He had that star power. We made the playoffs that first year while he was there. Cade gives us that hub, so to speak, and it was good for us to get him. We’re watching him grow. He’s gotten so much better from the beginning of the year until now.”
After a quiet first half (five points on 2-for-6 shooting), Cunningham scored 29 in the second half to match his career high of 34. Seventeen of those 29 points were scored in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. He couldn’t deliver a win for a shorthanded Pistons team against an Eastern Conference contender, but he made it plenty interesting.
He glided past Kevin Durant to finish a reverse layup, tying the game at 108. He barged his shoulder into Andre Drummond’s chest and hit another layup to snap a 7-0 Brooklyn run.
With 3:44 remaining in the game, Cunningham was still just getting started. He scored 13 additional points in that span, including a layup through contact for a three-point play, and a deep 3-pointer just a step in front of Brooklyn’s halfcourt logo.
Here’s the most absurd part of Cunningham’s brilliant performance — it almost didn’t happen. In the first quarter, he took a hard fall that caused him to miss most of the second quarter. The Pistons designated him “questionable” with a tailbone contusion.
If the medical staff had their way, Cunningham probably would’ve missed the rest of the game. Cunningham had other ideas. He said his tailbone felt better when he was moving rather than sitting, so there was no reason for him to sit.
“I wanted to play,” he said. “I felt like first few minutes, we had a rhythm going. I felt like I was seeing the floor well. I wanted to play pretty badly by how I was feeling, how I was moving in the locker room, things like that. Medical staff was trying to be cautious and make sure I wasn’t getting in my own way, setting myself up.
“Eventually I just kinda ran out. They were just like, ‘Well he left,’ so at that point I was trying to get back out there and try to help.”
Cunningham has made clutch plays through the early portion of his career, but he showed “it” during Detroit’s 130-123 loss to Brooklyn — not just the willingness to win, but the ability to carry the team against a more talented foe. He scored his 34 points on 13-for-24 shooting, making 5 of 11 3-pointers. He also dished six assists.
The Nets, who entered this season as a championship favorite and are currently an over-qualified eighth seed, needed 41 points from Kevin Durant to put the Pistons away.
ABOUT LAST NIGHT: Cunningham’s big fourth not enough vs. Kevin Durant, Nets,
Even Durant, who’s become a friend and mentor to Cunningham, had to give the rookie his props.
“When you got a 6-foot-7 point guard, it’s a good start,” Durant said. “You know what I mean? Somebody that can wreck a whole defensive gameplan with his size, his talent, his skill.”
Without Jerami Grant, the Pistons kept it close; largely thanks to Cunningham, who shared his thoughts on what he thinks “it” is after the game.
“Just being somebody that can translate to any team, to any position, to any group of guys, to any situation,” Cunningham said. “I play to win. There’s a lot of guys that play to win in this league, but not everybody that’s super talented does that. Just the way that I play, the way that I compete, it shows that and I try to put my team first. And sometimes in that, I try to help my team by me going and doing it myself.
“My teammates encourage that. They allow me to go be me. The fact that I’m doing what I’m doing, I think my game will speak for itself. I don’t know what he meant by ‘it,’ but I think my game will speak for itself.”
Since the All-Star break, Cunningham is averaging 22.1 points, 6.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 46.4% overall. He isn’t the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but he’s making a strong case. He is leading all rookies in points and assists in that span and is also the plus-minus leader (plus-3.3) among the rookies playing at least 25 minutes per game.
Cunningham and the Pistons don’t have as good a record as Evan Mobley and the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor Scottie Barnes and the Toronto Raptors. But Cunningham makes winning plays.
“He is the Rookie of the Year, talent-wise,” Casey said after the game. “We’re in a rebuild situation. It was planned, and other teams are a step ahead of us that are touting their rookies, which is fine. They should. Pound-for-pound, talent-for-talent, I think Cade is that guy because he showed against the best team in the East, I think, that he has ‘it.'”
Cunningham has come a long way compared to the early portion of the season, missing training camp, preseason and five of Detroit’s first six games with a right ankle sprain. It took time for him to find his rhythm. He shot 7-for-39 overall and 1-for-21 from 3 during his first three NBA games. Some wondered out loud if he would live up to being the top pick.
It took some time for him to work off the rust and adjust to the NBA’s pace, but he’s done so. In 45 games since Nov. 30, Cunningham is averaging 18.9 points, 5.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 43.8% overall, 35.8% from 3 and 83.5% at the line. He leads all rookies in points in that stretch and is also second in assists, eighth in rebounds and fifth in steals.
“More than anything, it’s my perseverance through struggles, through the noise and everything,” Cunningham said on what he’s learned this season. “Just focusing in on who I am and working on myself and not paying attention to other people’s perspective of you, more than anything. I feel like just going through that and trying to stay strong, stay within the team and worry about what’s going on internally with us, that’s what helped me be able to figure things out and help my teammates more because they stuck beside me and they continue to encourage me. If that’s going on, it’s easy to play confident and play free and do what I do.”
Cunningham doesn’t need to win Rookie of the Year to validate his season, even though the organization would certainly be thrilled to see him earn it. He understands his utilitarian approach to the game won’t always play well with casual fans. More often than not, Cunningham makes the right play instead of the flashy one.
But he’s still capable of playing with flair.
He nearly tied his career high by finishing a one-handed dunk after blowing past Drummond. Instead, he finished Tuesday’s game with a pair of free throws. It wasn’t as exciting, but he got to 34 points and punctuated his Rookie of the Year push with a memorable performance all the same.
“People have always tried to downplay me, just because I’m not going between my legs and dunking on dudes crazy,” Cunningham said. “Maybe my style of play is not their favorite style of play. But I think with the whole Rookie of the Year thing and people downplaying me early on, I never let it get to my head.
“It’s Rookie of the Year, not rookie of the first three weeks, anyway.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.