Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham transformed his body this summer. Now he must maintain it

Detroit Free Press

Cade Cunningham underwent a physical transformation this offseason. The Detroit Pistons’ budding star is noticeably bigger than he was at the end of last season, particularly in his upper body. His slight frame is now bordering on bulky.

At the end of his rookie season — in which the 2021 No. 1 overall pick was a unanimous All-Rookie First Team selection after averaging 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game — Cunningham revealed that adding weight and muscle was his primary goal over the summer.

(Videos of his offseason workouts even trickled onto social media.)

“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 of his end-of-season meeting with head coach Dwane Casey and general manager Troy Weaver. “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.”

With the help of the Pistons training staff and his own longtime trainers and family — big brother (and former Southern Methodist big) Cannen Cunningham and cousin Ashton Bennings — Cunningham has accomplished his goal. He added 15 pounds this summer, jumping up to 225. Cunningham isn’t an elite athlete, but he understands how to use his body to create angles and move defenders out of the way. With more muscle, certain aspects could come easier to him this season. He could launch 3-pointers from greater distance and finish around the rim with better efficiency.

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A lot went right for Cunningham during his rookie season, but his durability and overall efficiency were weak points. He missed 18 games due to an ankle sprain, a hip pointer and a bout of COVID-19. He shot just 41.6% overall and 31.4% from 3-point range. His conditioning was a factor in that, Cannen said, and the expectation is that he’s better positioned to handle an 82-game NBA season.

“Most of it has been strength training,” Cannen said. “It’s not like we tried to run a bunch of laps. Over the course of the season, guys will lose weight and a little bit of strength over the course of a year. It’s so much running and traveling. I feel like last summer, we did a poor job of making sure he was eating enough. We did strength training, but when he came and worked out for the Pistons, he wasn’t where he needed to be.”

Next season, eating will be a full-time job for the Pistons guard. He’s at his target weight, but he’ll have to eat even when he’s not hungry to maintain his weight. Cunningham was visibly tired at the end of many games last season. The jump from the college schedule to the NBA is tough for most rookies. With a year under his belt, he has a better understanding of what it takes to stay in playing shape.

“He had to do a lot of stuff as far as meetings and being here and workouts, and sometimes he grinds so much, he forgets to eat,” Bennings said. “I think that was a big part of what happened to him last year, there were times he forgot to eat. There were a lot of things he had on his mind. I think that’s what happened. Everything is back to normal. He adjusted to the league, he adjusted to life and his new life as far as being in the NBA and everything is back on schedule.”

Cunningham is vegan, and his diet has been a steady stream of protein shakes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and helpings of JUST Egg — a plant-based egg substitute with which he has a sponsorship. He has spent significant time in the weight room this summer with Pistons trainer Trent Salo, and Cannen credits him for helping Cunningham understand what it takes to add muscle.

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“The thing for Cade is, he’s very intellectual,” Cannen said. “He needs to understand why things are the way they are. I thought Trent did a great job of really educating him in the weight room this summer. He’s completely bought in. He’s strong as a bull right now. I’m excited to see how it translates onto the court.”

The family duo also worked with Cunningham on his shooting motion and cutting down on turnovers. Cunningham’s mechanics are good — he made 40% of his 3-pointers during his lone season at Oklahoma State. It didn’t translate to the NBA, though, and raising the arc of his shot has been a point of emphasis.

Overall, they’re keeping it simple, rather than overhauling his entire release.

“For me watching, I feel like he puts too much load on his shoulder,” Cannen said. “A lot of it was getting him to involve his legs more and the trajectory of his shot up. He was shooting it so flat at times that he didn’t give himself a chance to make it unless he was perfectly accurate. Shooting with more loft on it, now if the ball hits the rim it still has a chance to go in, as opposed to it missing.

“I just feel like he was overthinking things and once he’s seen two misses, that can get to your head,” Bennings added. “Once you stop thinking about it too much, the shot will come on. He’s never had a problem with his jump shot or 3-point percentage. I think he was just overthinking at the time. There’s nothing crazy that you need to do with his form. It’s just shooting it higher, that’s all. Holding your follow-through, getting back to the basics, to the fundamentals and things like that and he’ll be fine.”

Cunningham was a proficient playmaker last season, but his average of 3.7 turnovers per game was seventh-worst in the league. Of the six players with worse averages, four (James Harden, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic) averaged at least 7.9 assists to finish in the top eight in assists per game. (Cunningham’s 5.6 assists per game ranked 20th.) Cunningham was prone to lackadaisical plays and didn’t always put enough zip on his passes. During July’s Las Vegas Summer League action, he said he wants to take better care of the ball this season and do a better job of owning his space.

“Sometimes, he’ll get in the lane and not have his mind made up on what he’s going to do,” Cannen said. “He’s trying to make a last-second decision on five toes instead of having two feet on the ground. I think I’ve been helping him a lot with that. And Cory (Joseph) back this year, which I think is great. I also think it’s an interesting dynamic when you’re not the rookie anymore. He’s got to do things the right way for (Jaden) Ivey as a leader and as an example-setter. I think that, in itself, will help him clean some things up. But really the experience is the main thing, having the same staff back and most of the same team back. He’ll get a lot of similar looks as last year. I think he’s better suited to capitalize.”

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Cannen and Bennings, (popular on Twitter as @AshtonDaTrainer) have trained Cunningham since he was in fifth grade. They’re largely responsible for helping Cunningham ascend to the No. 1 ranking in his high school class, and not long after, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2021 NBA draft.

Compared to last summer, Bennings said, this offseason was less stressful, as they’ve worked in conjunction with  Detroit’s coaching and training staff this year. The hope is that, with all hands on deck, it will help Cunningham go from good rookie to franchise player.

“It was a lot of pressure off of me and Cannen’s plate, and just to bounce ideas with the coaching staff and the front office and things like that so we can get on the same page, because whenever he comes to Dallas, I may have him by myself, just him checking in with the family,” Bennings said. “We’re going to get in the gym in Dallas, and we need to all be on the same page on what to work on, and sometimes they ask us things like that because we’ve been training him forever, what will get his attention. We give them our advice. It’s an understanding that nobody’s trying to compete for who trains Cade. Everybody’s on the same page and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

What does Bennings believe Cunningham will produce this season?

“I see a lot of and-1’s, finishing the attack,” Bennings said. “A lot of things. He’ll be more healthy. He won’t get hurt as much because he’s gotten stronger. It’ll help his jump shot even more just being stronger, shooting it further away from the 3-point line. I see a big year for him coming, I see a big year. But again, when he has the big year it’s not going to be a surprise for nobody in his family because we’ve seen this movie before several times. He’s up for the challenges, he loves pressure. This is what he does, and this is not going to be nothing new for nobody in the family. We’ve all seen this.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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