It hasn’t even been one month since Cade Cunningham made his Detroit Pistons debut against the Orlando Magic. Yet, Piston fans have already experienced the ups and downs of having a prized rookie on the team. After a sub-par first two games, Piston fans were in complete damage control, shielding ridiculous claims from aggregators and opposing fan bases that the newly instated “face of the franchise” was a “bust.”
Fresh off his first triple double, Cunningham has since averaged 16.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists. More importantly, the Pistons are 4-7 in games in which Cunningham plays, and 0-5 in games without the rookie guard.
Therefore, after one month of the NBA season, I decided to take a dive into the film and breakdown the areas where Cunningham has been good and areas where he can improve.
The Good of Cade Cunningham
From the minute Cunningham stepped on an NBA floor, his impact as an on-ball defender was clear. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy possess all the physical tools to be a defensive nightmare for opponents. Standing at 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, Cunningham has the versatility to switch out to positions 1 through 4.
Cade the Defender
In only 11 games, we have already seen the defensive impact of Cunningham, as per Cleaning the Glass, when he is on the floor, opposing defences score -5.1 points per 100 possessions. For a Piston team with the second-worst point differential in the league, the numbers back up the eye-test, Cunningham’s presence on the defensive end is impacting the team in a positive way.
In his brief career, it appears the first overall pick possesses an uncanny ability to strip his opponents on drives to the basket:
Cunningham currently leads all rookies in steals, stripping opponents 1.4 times a night. The ball-hawking ability of Cunningham has provided a struggling offensive team with additional, much needed, transition opportunities.
Detroit fans should be excited about the potential of a starting line up featuring Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, at least for its defensive potential. This line-up provides switchability that has been absent from the Piston roster for more than a decade. The current starting lineup has netted decent results, with a defensive rating of 101.1. For context, the current Pistons starting line-up is on par with the starting unit of the Utah Jazz, currently 7th in the NBA for defensive rating.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Cunningham’s defensive play thus far is the mere fact he’s willing to get his hands dirty on the less glamorous side of the ball. As a top lottery pick, he could have his focus on posting high counting stat numbers. Points win awards and get you additional endorsements. However, the attention he shown on the defensive side of the ball is a tribute to his character.
Cade the Initiator
The former Oklahoma State product is also providing effective play as a primary ball handler and initiator of the offense. To begin the season, Coach Dwane Casey has implemented a motion style of offense that prioritises ball movement over traditional pick and roll sets. As a result, Cunningham’s initial integration into the offense wasn’t smooth.
In the first two games of Cunningham’s career, per Synergy Sports, the Pistons averaged 12 pick and roll possessions a game. Since then, the offensive focus has shifted toward more pick and roll, with the team averaging approximately 16 possessions a night. In some of Cunningham’s best individual performances, we have seen the number of pick-and-roll possessions around 20.
Cunningham as a pick-and-roll ball handler presents the offense with a myriad of options. The rookie guard has drawn comparisons to Luka Doncic with his ability to hit the roll man in stride, throw a bullet pass to corner shooters or finish in the mid-range area:
Efficiency metrics haven’t registered kindly toward Cunningham in the early going but, he has demonstrated at all levels of basketball his effectiveness as a creator out of the pick and roll.
As per Synergy Sports, 33% of Cunningham’s possessions come in the form of pick-and-roll sets. However, the former All-American also provides plenty of playmaking opportunities in transition and out of isolation. For a team that struggles to get into transition, Cunningham likes to get out on the break and push the tempo, finding teammates for easy looks at the basket:
Transition opportunities have been the most effective play for Cunningham, registering 1.00 points per possession (PPP) in these scenarios (as per Synergy Sports). Isolation scenarios have been less effective, however, the eye-test and improved team play are currently the best measures of judgement for a player with circumstances such as Cunningham’s ... or maybe thats just the homerism with in me!
Finally, while we are on the subject of numbers, Cunningham currently ranks second among rookies for assists per game with 4.1 per outing. However, this number should be higher. Cunningham currently averages 8.4 potential assists, while this ratio of assists to potential assists is on par with some of the league’s best passers, it’s fair to think Cunningham’s assist number would be higher if his teammates weren’t shooting historically bad.
Cade in the Clutch
Throughout this 11-game stretch, another aspect of Cunningham’s game which has seamlessly transitioned to the NBA, is his ability to make plays in the clutch. During his lone season at Oklahoma State, Cunningham was undoubtedly the most clutch player in the nation:
Cade Cunningham has scored 106 points in the clutch this season. No other player has more than 63.— Synergy Basketball (@SynergySST) March 22, 2021
So far in his rookie season, Cunningham has proven that he is already a go-to guy in the clutch. Prior to Friday nights game against the Golden State Warriors, Cunningham ranked fourth in the league for points scored in the clutch. In such situations, he was posting 4.0ppg on 71.4%FG and 50.0% 3FG, all while cooking some of the leagues best defenders:
Since the narrow loss to the Warriors, Cunningham’s clutch numbers have dipped a little. However, he still ranks as the best clutch performer amongst his rookie peers and top-20 league wide. A season ago, Detroit ranked as the 6th worst ‘clutch’ team, with a record of 7 wins and 25 losses. In the 10 games Cunningham has played, the Pistons are above .500 in clutch situations, with 3 wins and just 2 losses, not bad for a rookie.
Cade Cunningham and Areas for Improvement
While Cunningham continues to mould into an impressive well-rounded rookie, he still has facets of his game which require improvement. The most glaring deficiency of his game at the moment is his shooting percentages. There has been talk of a correlation between ankle injuries and the negative impact they cause on jump-shooters:
Ankle injuries are particularly bad for jumpers. Takes away rhythm, feels like you can’t get your lower half involved — especially for pull-up shooters. See very little reason to be worried about Cade's jumper long-term.— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 5, 2021
Cade the Shooter
The validity of Sam Vecenie’s statement seems to hold weight, as Cunningham has began to shoot the ball with more accuracy of late. Prior to Sunday’s match against the Lakers, Cunningham was averaging; 16.5 points on shooting splits of .442/.348/.875, in his previous five outings. Hence. we’ll put the initial rough shooting down to no preseason action and a limited training camp.
Cade the (Over)Helper
Another area for concern, which has been evident in each game, is Cunningham’s off-ball defense. Highlighted by our very own Bryce Simon (MotorCityHoops), Cunningham has a tendency to “over help,” often leaving his man open on the perimeter:
More often than not, Cunningham’s opponents are making him pay for his decision to leave them. As per Synergy Sports, opponents are shooting 45.7% from three, with an average of 1.371 PPP when guarded by the former Freshman of the Year. For comparison, Paul George and Jayson Tatum, players with similar build and stature to Cunningham, are allowing opponents to shoot 32% with an average of less than 1.0 PPP.
For a player with the defensive instincts of Cunningham, it can be hard to find the right balance between providing help and staying home on your opponent. At the high school and college levels their simply isn’t the dearth of talent to make aggressive off-ball defenders accountable for leaving their man.
If we are noticing this watching the games, you can guarantee the coaching staff are discussing the off-ball decision making process with Cunningham. Typically speaking, rookie guards almost always struggle to defend when entering the NBA, hence, this issue is nothing to be alarmed about but, it’s something worth keeping an eye on.
Another typical rookie trait amongst guards is turnovers, and the first overall pick is certainly churning them out thus far. Cunningham is currently tied with Jalen Suggs for the most turnovers per game amongst rookies, with 3.2 per contest.
The vast majority of turnovers are a result of Cunningham being ‘loose’ with his handle or leaving the ground without a plan. It’s normal for rookie guards to struggle with the added length and athleticism of NBA defenses. It will be interesting to see if Cunningham can reduce this number as his career progresses. Turnovers were an issue for him during his freshman season at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged more turnovers (4.0) than assists (3.5), far from optimal.
Cade the Sometime Aggressor
The final area of Cunningham’s game which requires discussion is his aggressiveness throughout a game. The idea was brought up on the most recent Detroit Bad Boys Podcast, by Laz Jackson. Laz stated that due to the lack of talent on the roster, it would be beneficial for Cunningham to be aggressive from the opening tip. Because without aggressive Cade, there won’t be a competitive fourth quarter for him to stamp his authority on.
Coming out of Oklahoma State, Cunningham’s game was described as a “slow burn,” meaning he doesn’t force anything and doesn’t look to impose his will on a game until the final term. This was definitely the case in Cunningham’s first few outings.
Initially, Cunningham struggled in the first half to score, but, he has since picked that up averaging 12.0 points in the first half across his past three games. However, both Cunningham and the Pistons both struggle to score the ball in the third quarter. Detroit ranks second last in the league for points scored in the third term, Cunningham also has by far his worst scoring quarter, averaging only 2.0 points. If Cunningham can look to come out aggressive in the second half, this should help aid a sore point within the Piston offense.
Cunningham is proving to be everything Piston fans envisioned when selecting him with the first overall pick. He has brought a swagger and confidence to the city of Detroit, reminding us fans what it’s like to have a true franchise centrepiece on the roster. In only 11 games, it’s clear the franchise rests on the shoulders of Cunningham, he’s the alpha dog, the guy that will transition the franchise from restoration too domination.