Niyo: Rookie star Cade Cunningham proves he has ‘it’ for rebuilding Pistons

Detroit News

Detroit — The Pistons finally found it.

And no matter how you define “it,” that’s all that really matters: Cade Cunningham has it, and the Pistons have him, the franchise player they’ve been chasing for more than a generation.

So forget about the debate over the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, and whether Cunningham’s going to get snubbed, as expected, later this spring.

Forget the Pistons’ overall record in his debut season, too: a 23-59 mark that should go a long way in helping general manager Troy Weaver add another star player to a promising young roster in Detroit.

Instead, just listen to Cunningham’s teammates as they headed out the door Monday following season-ending exit interviews with Weaver and head coach Dwane Casey at the Pistons Performance Center.

At one point during Frank Jackson’s media session, the fifth-year pro actually interrupted himself while talking about Cunningham, shaking his head and laughing, “He’s only 20, right?’” That’s because the things he was saying about last year’s No. 1 overall pick made it sound like Cunningham was a perennial All-Star well into his NBA career, both in way he plays the game and the way he carries himself.

“Cade’s beyond his years,” veteran point guard Cory Joseph later agreed. “I mean, he’s already a star. But he’s gonna be a superstar in this league, sooner than later. He’s an amazing talent.”

One after another, Cunningham’s teammates rolled through the interview room Monday, offering up superlatives to describe a rookie who made an immediate impact this season, on and off the court. And a rookie who has dramatically altered the Pistons’ trajectory as Weaver tries to build another championship team in Detroit.

Pistons center Kelly Olynyk, who just finished his 10th NBA seasons, says he’s never played with a newcomer quite like Cunningham, a player who does “so many things” and “a lot of the little things” but none of the things players his age usually do.

“When he steps on the floor, he changes the game for your team,” he said. “And you’re, like, ‘This kid is 20 years old!’ It’s unbelievable to see, unbelievable to watch. I mean, there’s no ceiling for him going forward.”

‘A human connector’

The versatile 6-foot-6 guard out of Oklahoma State was billed last summer as a “natural leader” with “special” traits by owner Tom Gores, who was sold on the idea of Cunningham after a pre-draft visit the prospective No. 1 pick made to his home in Malibu. And while attending the Pistons’ home finale last week, Gores made it clear he got exactly what he bargained for, raving about the “poise” and “great resilience” Cunningham showed through a rookie campaign that had its share of challenges.

“Even when it doesn’t go right,” the owner said, “he’s able to handle it.”

Indeed, it’s that handle that makes Cunningham such an invaluable find here, whether it’s controlling the tempo of a game or helping set the standard in a locker room that Weaver has intentionally filled with tough-minded, self-starting competitors.

As the GM explained when he drafted Cunningham, “He’s a human connector, on the floor and off the floor.” Only now we’re starting to get a real sense of just what that meant, and why it matters.

Cunningham asserted himself immediately while playing for the Pistons’ Summer League team in July. Then, after an ankle injury cost him most of training camp and the preseason, the rookie struggled with his shooting out of the gate in the regular season, going 7-for-39 from the field and a dismal 1-for-21 from the three-point line.

Cunningham admits he was a bit taken aback by the shots he took on social media amid those struggles, but Isaiah Stewart — part of Weaver’s “Core Four” rookie class from 2020 — said he never let that frustration show.

“A lot of people were talking about it,” Stewart said, “and it didn’t bother him one bit. Because he was confident in his work and his game. And that showed all season long.”

And once Cunningham got his legs under him, you could start to see that confidence grow. You could see the “it” that Casey kept trying to explain, while the rest of the league started to take note as well.

Particularly after the Pistons finally got healthy around the All-Star break and started stringing together some wins, notably against playoff teams like Boston, Cleveland and Atlanta. Then came that “surreal” night in Brooklyn, where Cunningham went shot-for-shot with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, finishing with a career-high 34 points, half of them in the fourth quarter.

“You got a 6-7 point guard, I mean, (expletive), that’s a good start, you know?” Durant said, when asked after that game about Cunningham and the Pistons’ future. “Somebody that can wreck a whole defensive gameplan with his size, his talent and his skill … it’s a great start.”

And some good motivation, insists Cunningham, who’s well aware just how hard the respect is to earn playing for a Detroit team that hasn’t mattered in the NBA in far too long. Whether it’s the referees’ whistles or the media attention, he’ll have to earn it.

Making his case

He knows he’s not the favorite to win the NBA’s top rookie award, partly due to his slow start but mostly because he’s not on a playoff team like Cleveland’s Evan Mobley or Toronto’s Scottie Barnes. He’s one of only 10 rookies in NBA history to average at least 17 points, five rebounds and five assists for a season. And the only rookies to post a statistical month like his March, where Cunningham averaged 22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game are Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

“I think I made a strong case for it,” he said Monday. “I had some big moments this year that will show that I feel like I’m the best rookie this year. … But whatever happens with the award, happens. I’m just ready for next year and what I can do next year.”

And that’s “it” right there, really, whether it’s the shout-out from Durant or the accolades that’ll go elsewhere.

“I think that’s what keeps me grinding. because working hard is what got me to this point,” Cunningham shrugged. “So if I keep doing that, who knows where I can get to?”

Or where he can take this franchise, for that matter.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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