Cade Cunningham’s first season is officially in the books. He isn’t quite ready to take time off, though.
When asked about his offseason plans that didn’t pertain to basketball, he said that he wanted to spend time with his daughter, Riley. Beyond that, the Detroit Pistons’ rookie is ready to get back to the gym.
He can rest later.
“First offseason, man,” Cunningham said Monday during the team’s player exit interviews. “I’m trying to work. I’m not trying to just go spend some money or go places. I’m trying to lock in. I feel like that stuff will come, maybe when I win some games. Maybe then, the offseason will be more about resting than anything.”
Cunningham’s first season is, by all measurements, a successful one. The No. 1 pick of the 2021 NBA draft finished first among rookies in scoring (17.4 points), second in assists (5.6), fifth in rebounds (5.5) and sixth in steals (1.2). He thrived as the Pistons’ top scoring option and leader in the locker room. The veterans on the team are impressed by the rookie’s poise at 20 years old. He’s already one of the most popular athletes in the city.
Yet, Cunningham feels as though he failed in an important area — the Pistons lost more games than they won. At 23-59 overall, Detroit has the third-best odds in the lottery. Most top picks go to teams mired in rebuilds. Cunningham’s situation isn’t unique, but he feels the pain of losing all the same. And that pain is informing his approach to the offseason.
The Pistons did seem to showing some signs of progress. They won 11 of their final 25 games. Cunningham played his best stretch of basketball in March, averaging 22.9 points, seven assists and 5.9 rebounds on with a true shooting percentage of 54.9. Saddiq Bey, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart all improved from their rookie seasons. Jerami Grant led Detroit in scoring for the second-straight season and formed a respectable three-player offensive tandem with Cunningham and Bey.
During his exit interview with Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver on Monday, Cunningham was told an off-cited Shakespearian idiom — heavy is the head that wears the crown. As the franchise player, Cunningham is taking that responsibility seriously.
“The main thing we talked about was just how important the work is this offseason of trying to take myself, my body to the next level,” Cunningham said. “I trust what Troy has in his plans for the team, and for what building the team will be like. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about how I can take my game to the next level, my body, and get ready for next year. My responsibility on the team is how I’m going to get better myself.”
Like all rookies, Cunningham learned some lessons the hard way. One was the demand of an 82-game season is. He often wore down at the end of games early in the year. He had to carry a heavy load, as Grant and Kelly Olynyk missed significant time with injuries. But he knows he has to be better-conditioned next season.
“Definitely getting a lot of calories,” Cunningham said of his offseason goal. “Eighty-two games is a lot. You can burn fat off, burn muscle off real quick. Just try to eat a lot, put some weight on. We have a whole strength and conditioning regime ready for me that will take me to the next level and help me be better prepared for an 82-game season, and everything that comes with that.”
A second lesson is how hard it is to win in the NBA. The Pistons endured a 14-game losing streak, and owned the NBA’s worst record for a significant portion of the season.
“It’s definitely not easy to win in this league,” Cunningham said. “Every night you have to be locked in. Your whole team has to be locked in. You have to take every possession seriously. I was just talking to coach Casey about it. There’s so many games where you’re like that team stole that win from us, they stole that game from us. And over the course of the season, you look back and there are so many games that are stolen from you that you’re behind and it’s tough to make that up. It is tough to win, but I’m excited for next year and just trying to practice that desperation every night of going and getting a win, every possession of making the best play possible.”
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But what stands out most about Cunningham’s inaugural season is how well he played. He had numerous standout moments — scoring 29 of his 34 points in the second half against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets on March 29; recording triple-doubles against the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers; flashy passes, Rucker Park-esque drives to the rim and scoring more clutch points than any other rookie.
Cunningham’s teammates respect him. Durant has given him props. The NBA has taken notice. The Pistons appear to have a budding star, and his teammates couldn’t help but brag about him on Monday.
“He’s beyond his years,” Cory Joseph said. “He’s already a star but he’s going to be a superstar in this league sooner rather than later. He’s an amazing talent, we all know what he can do with the basketball. He doesn’t get sped up. Mentally, he’s there every possession, every play. And he wants it in those big moments, he led all rookies in clutch points. That goes to show you he wants to be in those moments. He wants to be great, which he’s going to be.”
“I was super impressed by Cade this year, just to see how quickly he was able to find his niche,” Frank Jackson added. “He’s a baller, man. Can really play. What was telling to me was his confidence as he came in, and his humbleness, too. He’s willing to learn, but at the same time he knows he’s good. He knows what he can do. Add that along with how humble he is, that’s a guy I want to stick by as long as I can.
“He’s only 20, man,” Jackson added. “These kids are evolving. They’re mutants, I swear.”