Cade Cunningham has validated Detroit Pistons’ NBA draft luck. Can they strike rich again?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons lost Wednesday night against Dallas. Now they’ll have a few more percentage points chance in the NBA draft lottery, which is grand, because teams that win the lottery or land somewhere near the top of the lottery eventually win the championship with those players …

… almost never.

Luck is what matters. Not with ping pong balls or dice but with selecting the right player. Dallas is a fine example. Sacramento not so much.

The Mavericks ended up with Luka Doncic out of the 2018 NBA draft. The Kings took Marvin Bagley III.

Bagley, currently injured, is now a Piston and looks like a nice player for what general manager Troy Weaver is trying to build — the Pistons could’ve used his length and rebounding against Dallas. But Doncic is a future league MVP.

THE NEW GUY: How Marvin Bagley III is finding his fit with the Pistons

Did Dallas know he’d be this good? Of course not. No one did. Or he would’ve been the first pick that year (he was third overall, picked by Atlanta before traded to Dallas.)

This is true for almost every draft. It was true last year, too.

Cade Cunningham wasn’t the consensus No. 1 pick. Some teams liked Evan Mobley. Some teams liked Jalen Green. All three look like future All-Stars. Cunningham looks like the surest bet for eventual MVP.

Did Weaver know the player who went bucket for bucket with Doncic Wednesday night would be this good this quickly?

Maybe.

Yet there were questions, as there are almost always. With Cunningham, the questions were about his quickness and leaping ability and strength. They were not about his leadership.

“He’s a human connector,” Weaver said after he drafted him, “on the floor, off the floor.”

That was clear in the Summer League in Las Vegas, when he huddled the team on the floor at various points the first time he wore a Pistons’ jersey. And that was clearer Wednesday night, when he got up into Doncic defensively in the second half, forcing three turnovers, once stealing the ball from  him clean.

So bothersome was Cunningham’s defense that when he forced Doncic into a tipped pass the entire Pistons bench rose to celebrate.

“I want to show my team that we are here to play hard here (and) to go at these guys,” said Cunningham. “Every night I try to do something that will spark us a little bit.”

It works both ways.

“That was a good moment,” said Cunningham. “The bench was hyping me up.”

Like Weaver said, a human connector.

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Doncic wanted to make a statement, too, and when he hit a 3-pointer a couple possessions after the sequence of one-on-one battles, he turned and talked trash to the bench.

The best players in the league recognize pieces of themselves in the up-and-comers. Kevin Durant praised Cunningham’s potential recently after he torched the Brooklyn Nets for 34, most of them coming in the fourth quarter.

Doncic showed similar respect when he barked at the Pistons’ bench, and then when he embraced the star rookie mid-court after the game. It was the first time they’d faced each other. And while they aren’t the same player, there are similarities.

“It was cool,” said Cunningham. “I’ve always heard the comparisons. We both like to take our time with things. We both (are) not just outrunning guys and things like that.”

Neither ever get sped up. Neither is afraid of late-game moments, and both showed that fearlessness the moment they began their careers. Neither shy from the responsibility of running an offense and directing more experienced players.

“I’ve always loved being like a leader-type for my team,” said Cunningham. “I’ve always loved knowing what guys are doing and being able to tell somebody where they are supposed to be.”

That’s been a process for Cunningham.

“Sometimes it’s tough to just immediately buy into whatever a rookie is telling you whenever they come into the locker room, but one thing my team has done since Day 1 is they’ve embraced me. And they’ve instilled confidence in me. And then over the course of the year, they’ve allowed me to be a leader and eventually they bought in to what I was doing and what I was saying. But I can’t be a leader without a team that’s wanted to listen to me and give me that stage, give me that power to go be myself. It’s been a season-long battle, season-long journey, but I think we are getting somewhere.”

Those are the words of someone older than 20. Yet here Cunningham is, a couple of games from the end of his rookie season, sounding like a veteran captain, which he will be someday in title, but already is in practice.

MORE ON THE FUTURE: Pistons’ first-rounders take over in second half in upset of 76ers

His coach, Dwane Casey, calls him the “hub.” And, like Doncic, a player from which all else springs.

Casey envisions the same kind of role for his young star and can’t wait to see him evolve as the rest of the team around him does, too.

“(The Mavericks),” he said, “play the style we want to play.”

And while Cunningham is not Doncic — nor, for that matter, vice versa — his effect on the court is similar. He bends it toward himself and uses the resulting geometry to find shots for his teammates. When the angles aren’t there, he creates a shot for himself.

“I did my thing. He did his thing,” said Cunningham.

Cool. And cool under pressure.

No better sequence illustrated this Wednesday than at the end of the first half, when Doncic took the ball from the top, drove to the lane, slowed, kept the defender on his hip and then lofted an alley-oop pass for a dunk when more help defenders closed.

The only mistake he made was leaving four seconds on the game clock, which was enough time for Cunningham to take the inbounds pass, race up the left side, leap as he neared the top of the key, and throw a pass to a cutting Saban Lee for a reverse layup as the clock expired.

Lee wasn’t open when Cunningham threw it. But he knew he would be by the time Lee reached the pass.

The human connector. Weaver saw it. In taking him first last year, he gambled that he would see everything else Cunningham’s shown this season.

Credit his basketball intuition and his team’s scouting. Credit the luck of the heavens a bit, too.

Cunningham is not the only future star from last year’s draft. He’s just the perfect future star for the Pistons.

Now they’ll have to find the next one. He is out there. Lottery luck is only part of it.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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