Detroit — The decision wasn’t as easy as most observers made it seem.
The Pistons were on the clock with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and as in most drafts, there’s the initial thought of what could be taking so long to decide. After all, the Pistons had enough time leading up to the draft to figure out which of the top prospects they wanted.
Were they going to pick Cade Cunningham, the best all-around player, or take a chance on Jalen Green, probably the best scorer, or Evan Mobley, a versatile big man, or someone else?
Any of the top options could help turn the franchise around almost immediately. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver said following the draft that they didn’t make up their mind until the morning of the draft.
“We’re thrilled that we landed on Cade and we’re excited about him joining the Pistons family,” Weaver said on draft night. “We vetted this process out and he was always one of the top guys. We looked at the versatility he brings, the leadership and the connectability, which really separated him.”
With Cunningham’s rookie season in the books following a 23-59 season, nothing really has changed in that assessment. Weaver and the Pistons still are thrilled with their choice, and although the pick didn’t immediately turn into a bigger number in the win column, it did mark an inflection point in their rebuild.
The Pistons got the pick right.
Cunningham had a remarkable rookie season, leading all rookies with 17.4 points and he added 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists. Normally, those stats are good enough to win NBA Rookie of the Year easily, and Cunningham, who played in 64 games, is one of the three finalists, along with Mobley and Toronto’s Scottie Barnes.
Whether Cunningham wins isn’t the point here. It’s that the Pistons got what they needed. Beyond the numbers, the eye test shows Cunningham can be the engine to the rebuild, easily finding his own shot in clutch time and getting his teammates involved throughout the game.
Going back to Weaver’s original expectations of Cunningham, it was as much the off-court ability as the basketball talent that sealed the deal.
“We said we needed a leader, and for him to come in the door at 19 years old, having a voice and to have his leadership qualities displayed this year is tremendous,” Weaver said last week. “He’s a connector because of his leadership. He came and displayed that early on. Most of the time, young guys coming through the door want to stick their toe in — he jumped in and he was ready to go with his leadership and connecting ability.
“He didn’t let his struggles early on dictate how he still responded with the group, and as things got better, you started to see not only his growth, but the growth of the team, because of those two special qualities he has — leadership and his connectability.”
The leadership was chief among those, given the roster composition and the not-as-vocal personalities of many of the core players. The Pistons could have opted for any of the other picks, but with Cunningham, they got the full package.
“When you’re absent of something and it shows up, you like it,” Weaver said last week. “Our leadership was kind of different. Our veteran guys are kind of quieter guys. Some of our young guys are workmanlike.
“Cade has a voice, and it was a welcome voice because we didn’t really have a vocal guy or rah-rah type guy. So, when he came in, it was like, ‘Okay, this is something we needed.’ But we have guys who are very authentic, and Cade was authentic, and they received him well because he was being himself.”
Mobley, who is the frontrunner for the rookie award, is quiet, by many accounts, and that likely wouldn’t have fit as well with the Pistons’ roster and locker room. They needed what Cunningham has brought, and their compass is pointing toward winning in the long term because of it.
It’s a delicate balance for Cunningham, because it’s rare to have a rookie come in and take over a team from the start. Usually, there’s a transition period, where the veterans carry things at first, then allow the rookie to grab the mantle when he’s ready.
Not so much for Cunningham.
The veterans have helped make the transition easier, though, where he can find his voice and move forward, with their full support.
“Nobody likes when somebody comes in and tries to force (their ideas) on you. I’ve never really been that guy. I try to be confident in who I am and speak my mind when I feel like I need to and allow other people to follow that if they want to,” Cunningham said. “I know what I believe in, and I work hard on the court. I talk, and I try to help tell other people what I see. From there, it’s on them on if they want to hear me or not.
“I had teammates that really tried to empower me in a leadership role. Having guys like (veteran center Kelly Olynyk), who knows the game as well as anybody I’ve ever met, having him empower and uplift me into being a better leader meant a lot to me. I tried to take that challenge on and step into that role like I’ve been there before.”
The right time. The right player. The right pick.