The Detroit Pistons matchup with the Houston Rockets was some pretty ugly basketball. A national TV audience was subjected to two young teams struggling to score for long stretches, lacking in cohesive flow and still figuring a lot of things out. The Pistons won, and that certainly counts for something, but let’s leave that aside for a second. This game was billed as the showdown between No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and No. 2 pick Jalen Green facing off for the first time.
While the sum of the parts left a lot to be desired, the actual showdown between the two draft picks lived up to the hype with 23 points for Green and 20 for Cunningham on decent efficiency for both. They didn’t blow the doors away, but you saw enough from both to understand why they were drafted high and the teams are invested in their success.
Who came out on top? The answer to that question depends on whatever you thought immediately after draft night. It was a game that confirmed everyone’s previous takes and changed exactly zero people’s minds.
If Cade was the clear No. 1 to you, guess what, he still is. If you thought that by drafting Green you were actually getting the most explosive scorer who could take over NBA games at will. You haven’t budged that opinion one inch.
In reality, there are no easy answers when it comes to the skills, progress, and long-term potential of 19-year-old kids. Green showed you everything that made him a star in high school and in the G-League. The difficult shot-making, the deep range, the explosive leaping, and the fearlessness. But Green also showed you the poor decision-making, the lack of size, inattention on defense, and too often he couldn’t get out of his own way.
Cunningham, on the other hand, showcased the polar opposite skills that enticed his supporters. He was even-keeled, he set a tone and a pace to the game, he played quality defense on the perimeter, on switches, recovered out to the 3-point line. He also created for himself and for others (or at least tried to when his teammates would oblige by actually hitting an open shot). Conversely, he was decidedly ground-bound, which meant he had difficulty getting off his shots even after breaking down his primary defender. One bucket just inched over the rim on a little floater because he didn’t have the elevation to get all the way above the basket. He also shot only 28% on his two-point attempts, which continues perhaps the most troubling trend from his college years.
The biggest thing that stuck out to me, as an admitted Cade supporter over Green (and even slightly over Evan Mobley, I must admit), was that he was able to control the game, showcase an extremely advanced feel and basketball IQ and perform well on both ends of the floor.
Cade has a killer’s mentality. He wants to impose his will, but he knows he can do it in myriad ways and not all of them flashy. He has a knack for stepping up in big moments and wants to win above all else.
Green, to me, showed a scorer’s mentality. He hit beautiful open jumpers, but he also hunted for as many opportunities as he could. There is value to that, don’t get me wrong, but it also leads to things like awkwardly hitting the underside of the rim on a drive or air balling ill-advised fall-away jumpers.
One of the most enticing skills Green possesses is that he is a tough-shot maker. One of the things that terrifies me most about his long-term potential is that he also might be a guy that hunts for the tough shot because he wants to show you how much better he is as a scorer than you.
Perhaps the most emblematic moment of the night was Green’s highlight dunk over Cade in the third quarter. The basket tied the game at 73 and got the crowd off their feet. It truly was a ridiculously amazing play.
but then Green was so hyped, and perhaps a little unfocused, and he immediately stared down Cunningham and said some ... most likely unkind things not appropriate for the family table. And he got T’d up.
More than getting T’d up though, was that this was the last points Green would score on the night. The dunk gave him 23 and a tie game that could go either way and for whatever reason he did nothing else the rest of the night. Jerami Grant hit the technical foul and gave the Pistons a one-point lead. It would be a lead they would never relinquish.
Green missed a four threes, grabbed three boards, committed an offensive foul, and committed a shooting foul the rest of the way. A lot of sound and fury and highlights but then a big unforced error and then nothing. Green showed you why you should love him and showed why some people are a bit more skeptical of him.
For his part, Cunningham had the line of the night after the game when asked about Green’s dunk and trash talk. “Nothing I heard tonight held any real weight. It was all for the cameras, I thought.”
Cade on player's talking trash: "Nothing I heard tonight held any real weight. It was all for the cameras, I thought."— James Edwards III (@JLEdwardsIII) November 11, 2021
Cunningham, for whatever else you want to say about him doesn’t scare easily. He doesn’t get rattled, and he’ll never generate as many highlight plays as Green. But he’s got a little killer inside of him, and he knows just when to deploy it.
Consider my bias confirmed.