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Don’t overthink it: Cade Cunningham is the one player worth the No. 1 pick

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No matter what you want to rise against him, you can’t deny him

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

I might have accidentally contributed to some misunderstanding, so let me explain. In the middle of January, I recapped a game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and Kansas Jayhawks for our Draft Watch series. The subtitle of the piece read that Cunningham still isn’t perfect. In support of that premise, I pointed out that he could improve as a passer, ball-handler and defender. I don’t want to over-inflate my influence, but apparently the basketball world read that piece and ran with it to the point of coming up with all kinds of reasons Cade shouldn’t be the top overall pick.

The passing problem

John Hollinger, for example, wrote: “[Cunningham] constantly forces passes and rarely makes deliveries that make you go “ooh!” (They’re in there if you look hard enough, but man, there’s a lot of chaff in between the wheat.) He can throw crosscourt passes with his right hand, but they’re not laser beams; the defense has a chance to recover.”

Ok, so here’s a solid bunch of his passes from his game against Kansas.

Yes, we see that when he throws crosscourt passes the defense recovers some – it’s understandable since the rotating defender has three/four times shorter way to do so than the ball, even though, as you can see, it isn’t flying in slow-mo at all.

But what Hollinger doesn’t mention is that the rotating defender is on his heels. Imagine in those situations competent NBA shooters with ability to attack closeouts, let’s say Josh Jackson from April or Hamidou Diallo, and, boom, you have a score on all or most of those passes.

It also helps explain his relatively low assists numbers. All the passes you see on film contributed only one assist for the Cowboys in the game. For the season, he averaged a mere 3.5 assists per 36 minutes. So there’s a significant gap between him and a player who plays a similar type of game, Luka Doncić, as the latter had 6.6 assist per 36 before joining the NBA. But Doncić played with a team that had 38% efficiency from deep and 49.2% from the field while Cunningham played with a team that had 30.6 3P% (when we exclude his exceptional 40 3P% on 155 tries) and 45.8 FG%.

This could make up for around half of the gap between his and Doncić’s assists figures. The rest, which is not such a big deal now (it contributes to only 22% bigger TOs number – 4.1 to 3.2), comes from him being a little more prone to make sloppy passes.

Yes, this is a problem, but not so big that you should question his facilitating potential. And this was what I meant when I pointed it back in January. Man, speaking about a storm in a teacup. That’s just a scratch on his game that can be polished.

Ball-handling problem

Jorrye Nixon from nbadraft.net adds a little fuel to the fire, saying “[Cunningham] will need to get somewhat more refined and aware as a ball-handler at the lead guard spot.” Cunningham’s handle sometimes really looks sloppy.

The occasional sloppiness in a handle is weird when you consider he can also do this is weird, and is likely more a case of mental focus than pure ability.

But, again, nothing troublesome to see here. It’s also just a scratch on his game to be polished. I think that we can ascribe this to his emphasis to play calmly at his own pace, which he can afford to do due to being bigger than other guards. In most of the cases it works to his advantage. He just needs not to push with it too much. When he gets sloppy in the pros, he’ll inevitably get a seat on the bench and some timely coaching from the staff and his teammates, and he’ll learn to take it out of his game (the same with his sloppy passes).

Problems on defense

Nixon writes about Cunningham’s defense: “[He] can be beat off the dribble by slashers occasionally, possesses only adequate lateral quickness and sometimes gets upright when denying penetration; subsequently picking up fouls (2.5 per game) or collapsing the team’s defense. His footwork could stand to improve at times as well, [he] occasionally makes wild closeouts or takes wasted steps that can be attacked off the bounce or turned into FTs by players who are savvy about drawing fouls.” Again, these are all things we’ve previously pointed out. Yea, his defensive footwork can be disappointing.

So are his his closeouts on occasion.

We can even add some awareness problems.

He likely won’t be an elite defender in the NBA. But he’s 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan. Although he is not overly athletic, he’s not sluggish either. With all those tools, he should not be a liability on defensive end … when he polishes his game, that is. For what he can provide on the other end it should be much, much more than enough. And his defense should allow him to easily play at the end of games.

A fitting problem!?

Now, when the lotto results were revealed, there were a bunch of people questioning the fit. Jonathan Tjarks from the Ringer suggests that Cunningham could be not the best pick for the Pistons since Detroit chose Killian Hayes last year.

However, the rebuilding Motown franchise isn’t yet in the stages where it can draft for fit, and Killian still has to prove that he’s here to stay. Next, Killian was drafted as a project of bigger Goran Dragić, i.e. a 1-2 combo guard, who has tools to defend three positions on the perimeter comfortably. We saw him playing off the ball some and attacking from the (quasi)weak-side. He acquitted himself well sharing the backcourt with point guard Saben Lee. Cunningham, meanwhile, can play 1 through 4. He can play on- and off-ball with equal ease. I don’t see a problem here whatsoever. Rather, they can be seen as great complementary players who offer the team many versatile lineup constructions that offer shooting, passing, defense and switchability.

Any other problems?

Actually, Cunningham didn’t improve enough his midrange efficiency, which we ask him to do in that piece earlier this year. Going from 29.4 to 35.2 FG% between January and the end of the college season indicates progress, but we want him to be at least at a 40% threshold. With his overall shooting prowess and ball-handling abilities, it shouldn’t be such a problem for him to create enough separation and shoot better on midrangers.

I’m also going to whine a little about him trending down with his efficiency at the rim as the conference games progressed. Until the January game with Jayhawks, he was shooting with 65.6 FG% near the rim. At the end of the season it’s 57.9. The number of his assisted makes there fell from 32.5% to 25.7%, and the overall volume from 37.9% to 30.2% of all shots. Apparently, conference teams figured out OSU’s offense and Cunningham was frequently left playing one against five and saw his efficiency take a hit.

Opponents started to clog the paint against him, relying on his high school reputation as an iffy shooter to come back to fruition or overly reliant on an underwhelming mid-range game.

Instead, Cunningham became even better long gunner and upped his efficiency from midrange. In the NCAA, it allowed him to mitigate his deteriorating game at the rim. But in the more spread game of the NBA where his plays at the rim will be able to resurrect, this lesson should, in turn, allow him to fire on all cylinders at the other two levels as well.

Why not Jalen Green

The question on everybody’s lips. Whether they are sincere, contrarian or just bored is anyone’s guess. But plenty of Pistons fans and others are pointing to Jalen Green as the true best pick from the Pistons. Well, I was interested in Green before the lottery, too … at the third pick.

Green can become a very successful scorer. His ability to play off-ball and attack of bounce is very intriguing. But compared to him, Cunningham is from another planet, just like LeBron James was to Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony. When you watch Green play, it screams “give me some help!”

In the G-League, Green looked similar to Bradley Beal, a really good player who can’t play winning basketball but needs his Walls or Westbrooks (preferably, someone even better than them) to truly find success. When you see Cunningham play, it screams: “give me the fucking ball!”

Cunningham dictates the game his conditions. Green looks to take advantage of unsettled conditions (as those in transition, in attacked closeouts or in attacking off the ball), but when the conditions will be set, can you imagine him at 6-foot-6 and 180 imposing his will against the Jimmy Butlers, Kawhi Leaonards or Paul Georges of the world?

You can spin it how you want, exacerbating little flaws to his game, the constitution of the personnel we have or intriguing potential of his peers. But Cade Cunningham stays as close to the perfect fulfillment of rebuilding franchise needs as any. The gap between him and other potential candidates is simply too big to be denied by some inflated scratches I mentioned some time ago to point that he can be even more perfect. Let’s not overthink it, there is no competition for the Detroit Pistons no. 1 pick.