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Film Don’t Lie: Analyzing Cade Cunningham’s Game, December Check In

Breaking down what we hope to see continue and improve from Cade when he returns

Detroit Pistons v New York Knicks Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

ABSOLUTELY first and foremost, I want to send all the best to Cade Cunningham (and those close to him) and wish them health as he has tested positive for Covid and entered the NBA health and safety protocols. I also want to do the same for the rest of the Detroit Pistons who are dealing with Covid and all the players and their families around the league. Health for everyone through this time should never be overlooked.

With that said, we are in the business of talking basketball and the Detroit Pistons, and today we are going to take a look at what the month of December brought for rookie of the year candidate and No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham. After a slow start prompted some to utter the word “bust,” I highlighted all the things he was doing well despite the poor shooting. Lately, he was finding his rhythm.

In his nine December games, he is shooting 42% from the field on 16 attempts a game and 40% from 3 on 5.8 attempts. We continue to see his all-around game as he is pulling down 5.7 rebounds per game and dishing out 6.3 assists. The turnovers continue to give cause for concern, and I think we can all agree we would love to see him get to the free-throw line more.

Before getting blitzed on EVERY ball screen and DHO against the Miami Heat on Dec. 19, Cade had been scoring 21 PPG in seven December games but we got a chance to see his growth and maturity as that game he continuously made the right play in route to 10 assists and the Pistons breaking their 14-game losing streak. I did feel like we saw Cade a little “sluggish” or worn down in his final game Tuesday vs the Knicks before entering protocols. Again, assuming he is asymptomatic and will fully recover, I think we may see a very energized and rejuvenated Cunningham upon his return.

For this look in on Cade’s game, I will not be analyzing his outside shooting or even his mid-range scoring. I will keep my focus on his on-ball gravity, scoring in the paint, defense, and rebounding. I will obviously take a look at the positives he brings to the table in each of those areas BUT will also show things he could improve upon.

On-Ball Gravity

One thing that really came out of that Sunday game against the Heat was the incredible on-ball gravity Cunningham creates. Yes, part of that gravity has to do with the players around him not necessarily being offensive juggernauts, but if teams did not respect his individual abilities they would not have deployed that scheme.

As I went back to watch some of the games from December it immediately stood out to me how many nonprimary defenders Cunningham attracts throughout the game AND what opportunities those open up for his teammates. As impressive as his assists numbers have been, they are going to be even better when teammates finish at a higher rate. The more impressive “stat” might be how many opportunities he creates through the “hockey assist” — or the pass that leads to the pass that creates a bucket. Every time he gets doubled in a ball screen or attracts two help defenders on a drive he is putting the defense on its heels and creating advantageous situations for his offense.

When I originally wrote about Cunningham, I took some heat for calling Cade a “special” passer. While I stand by the fact that he will be, eventually, I can understand why some people called me out. All too often he is a little “lazy” or careless with passes as he is still underestimating NBA length, anticipation, and recovery ability. He still has some passes that are a little off target, though he is definitely not the biggest cause for concern in this area. The basketball IQ, the vision, the on-ball gravity, and a complete foundation are still there for him to be an absolute difference maker with this part of his game and I have no doubt we will see it as he continues to grow and improve.

Scoring in the Paint

This is the part of Cade’s offensive game that has impressed me the most through 25 games. Now, I will say that he may not be finishing at the rim at a high enough rate like we would like to see long-term, but when compared to Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker’s rookie seasons I think he stacks up okay in terms of the paint in general.

  • Cade - At the Rim (33/60, 55% - 9% asst) *25 games
  • Cade - 3-10 Feet (41/94, 44% - 24% asst) *25 games
  • Tatum - At the Rim (230/365, 63% - 59% asst)
  • Tatum - 3-10 Feet (30/114, 26% - 40%)
  • Booker - At the Rim (118/184, 64% - 53% asst)
  • Booker - 3-10 Feet (46/112, 41% - 39% asst)

The thing that immediately stood out to me was the percentage of these makes that were not assisted. What that tells me is that Cade has the ability to create these shots on his own without a lot of help from his teammates. That is something you want to see Cade expand in terms of off-ball movement, “true” post-ups, etc. but for a guy that had so much talk about how “unathletic” he was coming into the NBA, he sure does a good job of creating these opportunities.

Another thing I love about Cade’s paint-scoring game is the variety of finishes he has already shown in his young career. Again, not saying he is finishing all of them efficiently but (as I highlight in the video breakdown) he has a wide range of moves he can go to in any situation. This was something that I had in my “Keep an Eye On” portion of the article from back in November and it’s definitely continued to get better since then.

There are areas for improvement as you would expect from any rookie. Because he isn’t necessarily the highest of risers he does have to find a way to finish through and around help defenders and we have seen him being prone to getting his shots blocked. As with his passing, this is something that will improve as he adjusts to the NBA game. He also does a good job handling contact, at times, and then other situations we see him loose with the ball and ending up with a turnover. This may not be something we see improve this season but with an offseason of NBA strength training, I don’t think it will be an issue long term.


Cade’s defense has been a pleasant surprise. Honestly, I am not sure my expectations were that high for him based on what I had heard, but he immediately showed that he was going to play hard on that end of the floor AND be able to create some extra possession with his length, activity, and basketball IQ.

25 games in, we are still seeing a lot of those positive things. We have seen an ability to create steals on the ball and off. He may not be a high-level guard rim protector but he has shown an ability to help protect the paint at times. His engagement is usually very good, still has the occasional lapse, and is still willing to dive on the floor after a loose ball. I even think this propensity to leave a good shooter or “best” player away from the ball has gotten better.

It’s not all good on this end of the floor for Cunningham, though. We have seen him get in foul trouble in multiple games due to that aggressive style of defense on and off the ball and the one or two offensive fouls he gets per game isn’t helping either. I am not saying he should stop being aggressive, I am just saying that is lending itself to him spending some extra time on the bench right now. A couple bigger areas of improvement we should hope to see throughout this season and into next is getting through screens and guarding the ball at the point of attack against quicker guards and especially in close out situations.


Cade is fourth on the Pistons in defensive rebounding percentage behind only Isaiah Stewart, Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles. With the more traditional rebounds per game, he is actually 2nd with 6.2 and per 100 possessions he still comes in 4th behind only the same three players. I think it is safe to say that for a team that struggles to rebound, Cade being involved as he is has been a huge surprise and positive.

I think an aspect of rebounding that often goes overlooked is the ability to anticipate where the miss will be going. Players with the basketball IQ at the level of Cade understand this and are able to use it to their advantage even if they may not be the tallest, strongest or most “jumpy jump” (shoutout Laz Jackson!) guys on the floor. As with this defense, Cade flat out plays hard on the boards and is willing to rebound out of position and get contested rebounds.

Why am I so excited about Cunningham’s defensive rebounding potential? Because every rebound he gets is one less outlet pass and seconds gained starting the transition break going the other way. Yes, I LOVE the fact that he is bringing down those rebounds, accumulating those stats and is going to have plenty of triple doubles in his long career but all of that is trumped by the advantage it will create for the Pistons offense. As his teammates learn to run the floor, and finish, in these situations we will continue to see the pay off of his defensive rebounding for the offensive output.

I hope the “improvements” in Cade’s game I highlighted do not overshadow how absolutely thrilled I am, and we all should be, that he is a Detroit Piston. With each week of games, I grow even more confident in the fact he was the right selection at #1 and the impact he will have for this organization over the many years he wears the uniform. I want to leave this article with the same thing I have said in every other Cade article I have written. For a guy that was the #1 pick, with unreal expectations, putting the weight of the franchise on his shoulders immediately….he has said and done everything away from the court you would want from THAT player and has shown EVERYTHING on the court that we would want to see. Simply put, Cade Cunningham is still “as advertised”.........and maybe more!