Niyo: Cade Cunningham is stress-free, ready to take next step with Pistons

Detroit News

Detroit — Ever since he was a teenager, Cade Cunningham has been careful about what he puts in his body, including adhering to a strict vegan diet.

So among the things that had him worried last November, when the throbbing pain in his left leg was diagnosed as a tibial stress fracture, were the details surrounding the surgery that doctors recommended.

“The idea of putting a rod in my leg, it just sounded crazy — it sounded so foreign,” Cunningham said Monday, standing comfortably in the second-floor hallway of the Pistons’ Performance Center nearly four months after undergoing that season-ending surgery. “And so it took me some time to really wrap my head around that and to be ok with it and to trust it.”

But once he did — and now that he does — the face of the Pistons’ franchise is smiling again. And speaking confidently about both his future and that of his team, which wrapped up another frustrating campaign Sunday in Chicago and now begins a pivotal offseason.

“We have a big summer ahead of us, because next year is the year for us,” said Cunningham the former No. 1 overall pick whose extended absence — he missed all but 12 games this season — certainly played an outsized role in the Pistons’ league-worst 17-65 finish. “It’s a huge year, a year that we need to take another step.”

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They’ll need to find a new head coach first, after Dwane Casey’s announced Sunday he’s stepping aside with a year left on his contract. And general manager Troy Weaver will need to add some more talent to the roster this summer, both in the draft and in free agency.

Yet it’s these steps Cunningham is taking now — running pain-free and no longer confined to an anti-gravity treadmill — that adds to everyone’s confidence, most especially his own.

“I mean, I couldn’t be happier with my decision, knowing what I had dealt with all (that time),” Cunningham said. “And knowing now that I have something in place that’s gonna protect that, and allow me to just be myself and not have to worry about my leg, it’s a blessing. I’m happy I got it done.”

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Fresh off an NBA All-Rookie debut, the Pistons’ guard felt like he was coming into his own as one of the league’s young stars last fall before a nagging problem that dated back to his junior year in high school finally became too much to bear.

He says now that he dealt with what felt like shin splints occasionally as a prep star at Monteverde (Fla.) Academy, and more frequently during his one and only collegiate season at Oklahoma State. It became a persistent issue in the pros, though, and last fall it reached a breaking point during a two-game stop in Milwaukee, where Cunningham played through the pain in a 110-108 loss against the Bucks on Halloween night and then refused to sit out 48 hours later.

“I shouldn’t have played,” he admits now, visibly cringing at the memory. “I was just trying to push through it. But it was killing me at the same time.”

He’d play only three more games after that before the team shut Cunningham down to rest, consult with specialists and consider his options. And what followed over the next month was mostly a full-court press to save the 21-year-old from himself.

“It’s tough, because I felt like I was starting to get in a groove,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to just kind of load manage it through the year.”

But with an entire career in front of him, that hardly seemed prudent. And eventually, the second-year pro would come to realize it.

He says he talked at length with Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, a veteran point guard who dealt with the same injury several years ago and warned Cunningham the recovery wouldn’t be easy.

“He really helped me understand it, and that there’s gonna be days where it doesn’t feel right and you feel weird about it or you’re nervous about it or you might be angry at it, whatever,” Cunningham said. “But hearing that from another player that’s doing so well in the NBA and had it done a while ago, I think that was huge for me.”

So was the later conversation he had with the Dallas Mavericks’ Tim Hardaway Jr., who had the same surgery as Cunningham — the same surgeons with Forte Sports Medicine in Indianapolis, too — at the end of the 2018-19 season and played some of his best basketball after that.

“That probably the last straw that I needed,” said Cunningham, who went under the knife on Dec. 12 and then began the slow, steady rehab process laid out for him.

A swollen, discolored leg he couldn’t bend initially was cleared to run with his full body weight a couple weeks ago. And long before that Cunningham was back on the court going through shooting drills with John Beilein to improve the arc and accuracy on his three-point shot. (“I’ve been able to really build it up from the ground up,” he says.) Cunningham expects to get the green light for more on-court basketball work with coaches next month, and he’s confident that by June he’ll be able to scrimmage without restrictions.

So whatever doubts he might’ve had, they’ve gradually fallen away as he’s gotten back on his feet.

“I decided I’m not gonna worry about it,” said Cunningham, who also missed 18 games as rookie for various reasons. “I feel like this was meant for me, I feel like this is what I’m meant to do. And I believe in it so strongly.”

He believes strongly in what’s being built here as well, a feeling that was only reinforced this season while he was sidelined.

“We have the culture in the right place,” he insists.

And whatever doubts the rest of us have — about whether Cunningham can reclaim his status in the NBA, or about where this team is really headed — it sounds as if they’re falling on deaf ears here. Asked Monday if he felt any external pressure, Cunningham shrugged, “Nah. I’ve kind of released all that. I don’t really care for it. I just want to play again.”

Watching the growth of rookie guard Jaden Ivey this winter only added to that desire, and on Monday Cunningham made a point of saying how much he respects the person as well as the player that he hopes to form a dynamic backcourt with next season.

“I feel like him having the ball more, having so much attention on him, is really going to pay off in the future when we’re on the court together,” Cunningham said of Ivey, who averaged 20.7 points and 7.4 assists over the final month of the season.

Likewise, he was heartened to see Weaver hang on to some of the Pistons’ veterans — most notably Bojan Bogdanovich and Alec Burks — at the trade deadline in February.

“Yeah, it was it was huge for me,” Cunningham said. “Because it reassured me that the organization believes in this team just as much as I do.

“I truly believe that we can win a lot more games and that we can be a contender — a team that’s trying to try to fight to make their way up the ranks in the NBA. But it takes being together, it takes having camaraderie and chemistry and so I’m glad we have all those pieces around still, and I’m glad I have more time with ‘em.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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