Detroit Pistons buzz over Summer League, young core boils down to one guy: Cade Cunningham

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — Ausar Thompson has created buzz in the NBA’s Summer League. And after another fluid and all-court performance Wednesday night, imagining his future with the Detroit Pistons got buzzier.

From the courtside announcers to the league’s cognoscenti rimming the court — hey, there’s Joe Dumars — to his teammates and coaches, a single phrase kept popping up: “Wait until he’s playing next to Cade.”

That would be Cade Cunningham, of course, who showed tantalizing flashes on the same court two summers ago that Thompson is showing now. And while the rookie and the soon-to-be third-year pro possess games with dissimilar parts, it’s the overlap that’s got the franchise grinning.

Thompson thinks about his new on-court mate all the time:

“Two, 6 feet 7, 7-foot wing-span guys facilitating …” he begins, before pausing. “I feel like on the defensive end it could be something special.”

He should. Because it can. As long as you haven’t forgotten what Cunningham looks like on a court, at least when he was healthy.

Absence is no friend of memory in sports, or in life, too, I suppose. But in the NBA or any professional league for that matter, the churn is as forceful as a freighter’s propeller, and Cunningham’s talent feels a bit lost in the wake.

SHAWN WINDSOR: It’s easy to see: Pistons rookie Ausar Thompson will make team better

Thompson can see it clearly. That’ll happen when you watch as much film as he does. You think his game is only an act of God?

Yeah, maybe part of it is, but it’s mostly an act of self-determination, of drill work and film study, and what he’s seen of Cunningham, aside from watching him play in real time occasionally, is a similarly hungry — and gifted — defensive player.

“He’s actually really good on defense,” Thompson said Thursday afternoon, as he sat on a bench off to the side of a practice court north of the Vegas strip. “Someone told me he’s one of the best ‘keep-your-guy-in-front-of-you guy’ in the league.”

Cunningham isn’t as quick or fast as Thompson, but he’s equally clever, and the thought of the pair of them on the perimeter makes Thompson smile … on defense and on offense. Add in Jaden Ivey, who isn’t the defender Thompson or Cunningham are yet but who has the tools to be disruptive in his own way, too, and you can understand why they — and the rest of this (mostly) young team can’t wait to get together on the court.

“I feel like we can get out on fastbreaks, (and because) all three of us are unselfish, create wide open 3s and lobs,” Thompson said. “The three of us can come off screens. Everybody can get out and run because multiple people can handle the ball.”

That’s the vision, right?

Playmaking and speed, but none of it happens without Cunningham, and without Cunningham building on the promise he showed as a rookie.

For while Thompson is playing fundamental basketball out here in the desert in a way that is, frankly, head-turning, combining high-level explosiveness with an almost professorial feel for the game, Cunningham remains the principal fastener.

Here’s how Jarrett Jack, the Pistons’ Summer League coach, described Cunningham’s responsibilities:

“Not to put too much pressure on him, but when you’re the primary ballhandler your job is to create shots for yourself and create shots for others. You’re the one, (and) the reason why you have the ball is because you’re able to lighten the load on a lot of other people, as well as control the atmosphere and the pace we play.”

Control the atmosphere?

That’s a lot. A load, as it were, and the reason the Pistons took Cunningham at No. 1 two years ago. He is also part of the reason Thompson is generating so much talk. Because folks are thinking about what he’ll look like next to Cunningham.

And though the Thompson-Cunningham dynamic is the focus at the moment, the same is true for Ivey and Jalen Duren, neither of whom really got to play much with Cunningham a season ago. He’ll be responsible for making them better, too.

But back to the wing pairing for a moment. Why?

Because “it’s fun to think about the possibilities,” said Jack. “(Both) offensively and defensively, infusing all these guys with length and athleticism into our system.”

There will be growing pains, no doubt; and even if the Pistons doubled their win total, they’d likely still miss the playoffs. So, no, the future isn’t just about next season, but the next two or three, as the players get old enough to learn how to win.

Next season, then, has to be about improvement, about figuring out how to get stops in a tight game, about learning how to play competitive basketball consistently, about understanding how to play together in a new system, one that will demand instant decisions every possession.

Which brings us back to Cunningham and his new running mate, both of whose brains are wired to play in such a system.

“I feel like I’ve always had, like, a high processing speed,” said Thompson. “I feel like I’ve always played the game properly, and have seen the game, and see things happening before they happen. Sometimes I see things happen that don’t happen. Like I envision what would happen if a cut happens …”

And what he might do in the vacated space.

“Maybe you can attack,” he said.

Then kick it. Or swing it first. Then cut off the ball himself. So many possibilities. All in a split second. The churn of a young basketball mind who sees so much, including that his new team starts and stops with his new teammate on the perimeter, a doppelganger of processing, and a player who can’t wait to get back to the stage and remind everyone who he is and who he can be.

That, said Jack, “will be satisfying for him.”

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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