‘This guy’s on the wrong team’: Pistons’ Cunningham dazzles in Team USA scrimmages

Detroit News

The Pistons don’t fall under the typical umbrella of conversation when it comes to the NBA’s national media, but Cade Cunningham’s impressive showing during two scrimmages against the USA Basketball Men’s National Team has several experts raving about the former No. 1 overall pick’s long-term potential.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst was joined Monday morning by colleagues Tim Bontemps and Tim MacMahon on the latest episode of “The Hoop Collective” podcast to discuss several NBA topics, including Cunningham’s impact on the Team USA’s Select Team, the current state of the Pistons and much more.

Cunningham headlined the 2023 USA Basketball Men’s Select Team that trained with the National Team in preparation for the 2023 FIBA Men’s World Cup. The 14-player Select Team featured several young players, including Pistons center Jalen Duren, who’s coming off an impressive rookie season that resulted in All-Rookie honors.

“Cade Cunningham is back and looks really good,” Bontemps said. “Seeing him both Friday and Saturday in the scrimmages that the Select Team played against the Senior National Team, he looked great. He looked like a guy that could’ve easily been on the Senior National Team if not for the fact that he was dealing with the stress fracture.”

The Pistons spent the majority of last season without Cunningham, who was limited to just 12 games, due to a stress fracture in his left leg that required season-ending surgery on Dec. 16. It’s a small sample size, but Cunningham finished his brief sophomore season with versatile averages of 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists, which was essentially on one leg.

Several highlights from Team USA’s scrimmages show Cunningham picking right where he left off from the first 11 games of last season. He was able to use his 6-foot-6 frame to maneuver in the pick-and-roll, which often resulted in his signature mid-range shot or lobs at the rim to Duren, who viscously slammed down a couple of dunks. Cunningham’s handle looked sharp as well, which he used to drive to the rim for easy layups.

Updates on Cunningham’s recovery process have been particularly brief, but his showing in Las Vegas suggests that he’s closer to 100% as he enters the final stages of his rehabilitation process.

“I feel healthy again,” Cunningham said, according to ESPN. “My leg isn’t a problem for me right now. So, I think that’s the biggest difference, just that I can just play freely and not think about my body too much.”

The Select Team won both scrimmages on Friday, but Bontempts also suggested that Cunningham played well in a later scrimmage in which the National Team “throttled” the Select Team.

“One of our friends was there watching these practices and when I walked in on Friday, the first thing they said to me was, ‘This guy’s on the wrong team,’ ” Bontempts said, referring that Cunningham should be on the National Team.

Cunningham was extended an invitation to join the National Team by Pistons legend Grant Hill, who also serves as the managing director for Team USA. However, he recently told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon that load management was “the deciding factor” when he ultimately rejected the offer, and he opted for the Select Team instead.

“He hadn’t played all of last year and I think they wanted to make sure he ramped up properly for the season,” Bontemps added. “They had him in a Luka Doncic-type role on Friday during the scrimmages … Cade Cunningham is essentially the same size as Luka. They had him playing the same way, and he was tearing Team USA apart.”

Having a healthy Cunningham bodes well for the Pistons, who finished with a league-worst 17-65 record last season. He’s the primary piece of a young nucleus that includes Duren, Jaden Ivey, Isaiah Stewart and rookies Ausar Thompson and Marcus Sasser, who were first-round picks this year. The Pistons also have a few veteran scorers in Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks, along with newly acquired Joe Harris and Monte Morris.

The Pistons are full at the guard position with Cunningham, Ivey, Burks, Morris, Sasser and Killian Hayes, but they also have a bevy of big men on the roster, including Stewart, Duren, Marvin Bagley III and James Wiseman. MacMahon and Windhorst chimed in on Detroit’s imbalanced roster.

“If you’re gonna have a guy like Cade Cunningham, you better be able to space the floor,” MacMahon said. “Surround him with a bunch of shooting, so I’m not quite sure how their three recent top-five picks all fit together.”

“They have five guys on their roster who are considered point guards,” Windhorst said. “It’s just an imbalanced roster. They’re primed for a trade. They’re a team to watch for a number of reasons.”

Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game, but Cunningham’s absence last season is likely the biggest reason why most pundits fail to mention him when referring to the most promising young players in the NBA. And if Cunningham is able to carry what he’s learned with USA Basketball during his next season with the Pistons, the team should have a good chance to climb from the cellar of the NBA standings.

mcurtis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @MikeACurtis2

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