And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for your main event! We’ve all been waiting for Cade Cunningham’s regular-season debut in a Detroit Pistons uniform. I definitely feel honored and privileged to be the DBBer that gets to write up his first player preview, so let’s jump right in and get pumped for year one of the MotorCade.
Cade Cunningham is 6-foot-7 (MAYBE 6-foot-8 in shoes according to basketball-reference and sports-reference) basketball player who can do a ton of different things at a high level. Most think of him as a guard, but I am going to push back on that A LITTLE BIT as he is wing-sized with a lot of guard skills.
In his one season at Oklahoma State University, Cade’s per-game averages were:
20.1 ppg, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks and 4.0 turnovers
He shot 46.1% from two-point range, 40% from three-point distance, and 84.6% from the free-throw line. All of this translated to an advanced stat-line of:
57.4% True Shooting, 20.4% assist percentage, 18.7% Turnover Rate, on 29.1% Usage
It is easy to say that the No. 1 pick is going to play a lot and get the green light to do whatever he wants on offense, but with Cade, it is much more than him filling up the stat sheet. Recently, coach Dwane Casey made the following comment about Cade:
Dwane Casey on Cade Cunningham: "He's savvy enough to understand team dynamics. If you're the No. 1 pick, it's obvious you can play. It's the other things with him."— James Edwards III (@JLEdwardsIII) September 30, 2021
I think this is a good place to start when previewing what Cade is going to look like this season. As his teammates have also commented about him, he is committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure his team wins. And how I see that playing out on the basketball court in year 1 will come in a plethora of different ways on offense and defense.
On offense, I see him mainly being a threat as a shooter, one of the primary pick-and-roll ball handlers, and (thanks to Bryce Simon of Motor City Hoops for pointing this out!) operating out of the mid-post to get some easy mismatches. Let’s go to the film before diving into the written analysis:
While I DO NOT have a one-to-one comparison for Cade, on the offensive side of the ball I see him as very similar to Devin Booker (as Bryce mentioned) in that his primary weapon is a lightning-quick and deadly accurate jumper that opens up a variety of other offensive opportunities. As Bryce breaks down in the video, Cade always gets his feet set and is textbook in his shot prep and ready to fire away in a variety of settings.
This indicates he will be able to operate well with Killian Hayes playing the point as Cade will be able to move off-ball and provide that consistent spacing alongside Saddiq, Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk, and Frank Jackson. I definitely see Cade being able to get free in a variety of off-ball situations like what Bryce breaks down in the video to get easy three-point shots.
The summer league game against the Knicks also gave us a strong indicator of what Cade looks like in this type of off-ball role. In this game, Cade scored 12 of his 24 points off assists from his teammates. Much has been made about Cade’s abilities on-ball (and rightfully so) but to see him move and provide consistent supplementary spacing for easy feeds from Saben Lee, Hayes, and Luka Garza shows how much his off-ball scoring is underrated and contributes to why he is able to rain buckets in a flash.
Cade’s ability on the ball as a primary pick-and-roll ball handler will be more of a work in progress, but will be aided greatly by his long-range jumper. Why I make the Devin Booker comp is that similar to how Book leveraged his jumper in order to get cleaner looks going to the rim, Cade will do the same as he tightens up his handle.
As Bryce shows in the video, Cade is not overpowering or posterizing guys going to the cup. He gets in that 3-8 foot range for floaters, runners, and hooks. While some have criticized this aspect of Cade’s game saying he is neither athletic nor strong enough to generate better looks at the rim, you have to look at the context of the conditions under which Cade was operating in college.
Notice in the video that Cade is either in an iso situation, or the defenders in pick-and-roll coverage, both pay attention to him and disregard Cade’s teammate setting the pick. This is part of the reason why Cade’s percentages might not be as impressive as others, and (more importantly) why there is reason for optimism that this will improve in the NBA when he is surrounded by teammates defenses CANNOT disregard.
Just imagine these clips again with Beef Stew setting the pick, Saddiq above the break, Jerami Grant in one corner and Kelly Olynyk in the other. THAT is a situation where Cade will have space AND a roll man that can finish just about anything. I imagine late in the shot clock and late in games, this lineup will be utilized because of how it can unlock almost all of Cade’s on-ball abilities.
As I was working on this preview with Bryce Simon, he pointed to a comment Coach Casey made about Killian and Cade being bigger guards that can play out of the post. Going back to Cade’s film study, we see this aspect of his game and it should be expected here in Detroit as well for a variety of reasons.
One, it provides an immediate mismatch on a league that is getting smaller. There are VERY few teams around the league that have even one guard that matches Cade’s height and length and even fewer guards (even the taller ones) with the core strength to keep Cade from backing them down. I mean, just look in Cleveland where neither Darius Garland nor Colin Sexton stands 6-foot-2 (really we should be starting the #PostUpCleveland hashtag now).
In addition to taking advantage of Cade’s size, it will also benefit Beef Stew and Kelly Olynyk. In that same media session, Casey mentioned that Olynyk and Stewart would be utilized together a lot on the court, and operating out of the mid-post can make a lineup with both guys work. If Cade posts up then Stewart can be the cleanup guy getting rebounds or operate in a short roll if they call that kind of play. Olynyk also has the capabilities to do the same in addition to providing spacing in one of the corners.
While this is most likely not going to be the sun around which the offense orbits, I’d bet it is still one of the planets in the system that keeps the entire offensive system spinning because that combination of mismatch potential with personnel fit is a great match.
As I stated earlier, I do not have a one-to-one comparison for Cade, and that is because of how much he is able to do on the defensive side of the ball. Here I see him as a high-level weakside defender similar to how Jayson Tatum operates.
At Oklahoma State, Cade was effectively a power forward and weakside rim protector on defense—and an extremely high-level one at that. I picked the film for Cade’s game against Kansas as well as the game he had against Wichita State in particular because it highlighted Cade’s fantastic defensive abilities and it also showed just HOW MUCH he truly is committed to winning.
As Bryce mentions, the block, steal, pass back in-bounds to his teammate who then runs and scores in transition was the GAME WINNING play in that Kansas game. The Wichita State game is even more informative about Cade’s abilities and commitment to defense. He manages to only score 10 points in that game going 4 for 11 from the field. He hits the game-winning 3 (#ClutchGene), but more importantly is all the defensive plays he makes in the second half of that game.
He pulls in 6 rebounds all on the defensive glass, he makes proper rotations and protects the rim, and makes a block with 5:50 to go, and with 2:06 to go, he makes one of the most impressive defensive plays you will ever see a player make. Alterique Gilbert of Wichita State drives to the rim with a defender trailing and Cade rotates over to meet him at the rim. Gilbert then whips a pass to Ricky Council IV who Cade closes out on in a flash. He does not jump to try and block his shot but utilizes his arms to get up in Council’s face and get him to have to attach off the dribble.
Council then tries to take it to the hole, but Cade stymies him the entire way, forcing Council to put up a wild shot which Cade corrals for a rebound with 1:58 left to play. And then a little over a minute later Cade hits the game-winning shot. All of this shows his focus and commitment to EVERYTHING on basketball court that affects winning. I know we hear from a ton of players that “I just want to win and will do whatever it takes to ensure that,” but seldom do we see it bear itself out on the court like this.
And while the Pistons have Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey who can also play the four, I would bet Cade is going to continue in this type of weakside power forward role for a few reasons. The biggest is that Jerami Grant is not that great of a rebounder. The most boards per game he has averaged in a season was 5.2 in 2018-19 when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder. This past season only saw him pull down a total of 250 rebounds which was good for fifth on the team.
Also, while Saddiq and Grant can operate as man-to-man defenders on wing players more effectively than Cade. Saddiq and coach Casey have even made comments recently about Saddiq’s ability to play and guard the shooting guard position, and I would bet Cade’s abilities on defense have a lot to do with this.
Lastly, we already saw a bit of this in Summer League. In the three games he played, even when other guys labeled as pure forwards were out there in Saddiq and Sekou, Cade was in the weakside role next to Tyler Cook or Garza. So the team sees what Cade can do here as well and in the first competitive minutes he has gotten, they put Cade in this same role. Cade is also an underrated rebounder who boxes out and understands positioning, which is also why he succeeds in this role. This also feeds back into his offense as he can get the rebound and immediately be the one running the break.
Picture Cade getting the rebound, Grant running ahead to look for lobs, and Saddiq trailing for threes. THAT is an incredibly strong foundation for a great transition offense.
I think what is reasonable for fans to expect out of Cade stat sheet-wise is a game similar to that of post All-Star break Devin Booker during his rookie year only with better rebounding numbers. After All-Star weekend, the Suns understood the kind of on-ball scorer they had in Booker, and Book was more comfortable in that role. His per-game averages were: 19.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 3.1 turnovers.
Up the rebound number to around 6 per game due to Cade’s role on defense and this is the ballpark of where Cunningham could end up. Depending on how the others on this team develop, we could see fewer points for Cade, though, as Jerami, Killian, and Saddiq, in particular, could need more usage if their games continue to grow in the scoring department.
Let us know what you think Cade Cunningham is going to look like in year one here in the Motor City and how excited you are to finally be yelling out Dee-troit Basket-ball as Cade gets ready to inbounds another turnover he generated.