Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham’s Vegas performance raises stakes for coming season

Detroit Free Press

The last nine months have been an exercise in patience for Cade Cunningham.

The Detroit Pistons’ 2021 first overall pick missed all but 12 games of his sophomore season due to a stress fracture in his left shin, for which he underwent surgery last December. He’s largely been out of the spotlight since, rehabbing and supporting his teammates from the sidelines.

Last season didn’t go according to plan, but Cunningham was calm when he addressed the media at the end of last season in April.

“I thought I would be going insane by now, but it’s just because of the workouts and how I’ve been able to feel myself building up and getting my foundation right that’s really kept me locked in and kept me excited for the next step and ready to continue to build,” he said.

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Cunningham’s “next step” is finally here. The third-year guard was the main subject of both Pistons and NBA Twitter this past weekend, following a standout performance with the USA Select Team in Las Vegas.

His patience is finally paying off.

Per reports, he was the best player on the floor and led the younger squad to back-to-back scrimmage wins over the more-experienced Team USA FIBA World Cup team, which is highlighted by Michigan State alumnus Jaren Jackson Jr., Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards and Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton.

All indications suggest that Cunningham is back and fully healthy. That’s excellent news for a Pistons team that has higher aspirations after finishing with just 17 wins last season. They don’t just need Cunningham off of the injury report — they need him to make a leap and prove he’s among the Eastern Conference’s elite players.

His USA Select Team performance was his first big test in the spotlight since undergoing surgery. He passed with flying colors, and it raises both the excitement level and stakes next season for a Pistons team looking to turn the page.

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“He looked great,” Golden State Warriors and Team USA coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Vegas. “The injury is clearly behind him and it’s great to see him healthy. He’s a guy who can really control the game from the point guard spot with his size and physicality.”

The videos that have trickled out from the scrimmage support that notion. Similar to his play during his rookie season, Cunningham was calm and in control. Defenders had a tough time staying in front of him. He calmly stepped into pull-up jumpers from midrange and from 3. And he had strong chemistry with his bigs — particularly with Pistons teammate Jalen Duren, who also drew strong reviews in Vegas following a promising rookie season.

“I feel healthy again,” Cunningham told reporters. “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.”

Cunningham’s performance served as a tease for weary fans who are eager for the Pistons to exit the rebuilding stage and make a playoff push. The team has taken steps to position itself for a leap next season, investing in proven coach in Monty Williams and prioritizing roster depth this offseason.

But Cunningham remains the team’s key to making an even bigger leap — contending. The jury is still out on the tier of player he’ll eventually become, but his Vegas performance showed that he can hang among the NBA’s brightest stars. The next step? Carrying it into the season.

“I think Coach Williams coming in, I feel like that’s the best-case scenario for us, and we got it done,” Cunningham told reporters. “And then the young guys that we got coming in are really going to help us.

“I’m excited about them. They’re great players on the court and also really good people and people that I’m excited to work with. So it should be a fun year.”

Williams has been in this position before. The Phoenix Suns improved from 19 to 34 years during his first season as head coach in 2019-20, and then from 34 to 51 wins a season later. But he understands it starts with the talent on the roster.

Devin Booker’s leap to superstardom was a major factor in the Suns’ rapid improvement. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson quickly emerged as talented role players after being drafted in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Williams sees parallels in Detroit, but Cunningham will have to be a Booker-level talent for the Pistons to make an eventual Finals run.

So far, so good.

“You see the same things you see with Cam and Mikal, just hungry, in the gym all the time ready to take a jump,” Williams said during his introductory press conference. “I look at Jalen (Duren) and I’m like, this young man is going to be an All-Star soon, and (James Wiseman), how do we get him? Both those guys have a chance to be special. Cade’s Cade. You don’t take it for granted but he has so much room to grow.”

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

Listen to “The Pistons Pulse” with new episodes each week, wherever you listen to podcasts. Catch all of our podcasts and daily voice briefing at freep.com/podcasts.

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