The NBA landscape appears to be shifting. For the first time in 51 years, the Detroit Pistons have the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. And, of course, we’re on the heels of fellow flyover franchise the Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA Title for the first time in 50 years.
For the Bucks, it was the culmination of nearly a decade of building a contender around Giannis Antentekounmpo. For the Pistons, it’s all about developing a solid foundation and finally identifying a player worth building around in the hopes of also grabbing a title some time in the next decade. It’s a thrill to have the first overall selection. It’s also a lot of pressure.
In short, the Detroit Pistons can’t afford to screw this up.
Just. Take. Cade.
I will be the first to tell you that Cade Cunningham is not a perfect prospect. There is much to love but there are some honest to goodness red flags in his game. Compounding matters, the top of this draft seems unusually stacked with really intriguing players that are solid bets to be good to great, but also with big question marks on their resume.
Evan Mobley is a lockdown defender who might be able to guard four positions, facilitate and develop a perimeter shot.
Jalen Green is a dynamic athlete with a killer stepback already and a feel for creating opportunities to score. Dare I say, he’s a HOOPER.
Jalen Suggs is a player that makes me thankful that the Pistons don’t have the third pick, because I feel like I love him as a prospect more than a lot of DBB readers, and would have to go to war in Suggs’ honor. He’s an explosive athlete himself, Has great two-way potential, scores at the rim and gets to the line, which I think is often overlooked in this perimeter-obsessed time we live in.
In the end though .... Just. Take. Cade.
The Detroit Pistons should take the best player in the NBA Draft. No being too clever by half, no trading down to stockpile assets at the expense of the first guy on their board. You don’t win the lottery and then go out and use all the proceeds to buy more lottery tickets. Lightning has struck, and now the Pistons need to stick the landing.
Why Cade is the No. 1 Pick
Cunningham has Troy Weaver DNA coursing through his veins. He is a relentless worker, a natural leader who guys want to follow and he has all those Weaver-approved measurables. He’s a 6-foot-8 playmaker with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He’s 220 pounds and isn’t going to be pushed around by any player along the perimeter.
He’s also a 19-year-old with really solid offensive and defensive instincts. He knows how to use his length, strength and size to get past defenders or get a solid look over them. He has solid body control and good footwork. He’s extremely patient with the ball, and patience is something often lacking in young players whose talents are clearly above his competition in high school and college. He led the NCAA in clutch scoring, meaning he isn’t afraid of stepping up in big moments. He wants to be the guy, and he has the skills to be the guy.
Where Cunningham really solidifies himself as the correct pick for me is on the defensive side of the ball. I trust that part of his game to grow and for him to become at minimum a plus defender and at best perhaps one of the better two-way wings in the NBA.
When you watch game film of Cunningham when he’s locked in defensively, what you see is a player who is seeing several moves ahead on the chess board. He knows where the ballhandler wants to go with the ball, he knows what actions his defensive assignment is about to run, and he understands what the counter will be when he attempts to cut that first option off. He plays passing lanes well and has a good sense of running out in help defense while also being able to quickly get back to his man as his teammates recover. And, again, his size and strength will play at the next level.
Heralded as a scorer, Cunningham came to a stacked Montverde Academy and played point guard because they needed a player that could get everyone involved. Stepping foot on campus at Oklahoma State, there were huge questions about his ability to shoot the ball and he shot 42% on catch-and-shoot 3s and could also create and make shots off the dribble.
Cunningham has shown he is interested in adding more and more to his game, and that he is willing to put the work in.
If you can get a playmaker who can’t be played off the floor in big moments. If you can get a player with so few deficiencies in his game that you can focus on adding complementary players that play to his strengths and not just hides his weaknesses, you have to do it.
Just. Take. Cade.
Why Cade is a Risk with the No. 1 Pick
Let’s not sugarcoat things. Cade has some red flags in his game. He has more turnovers than assists. He shot just 33% in the mid-range. His lack of top-end athleticism might mean what worked for him so well in college won’t translate to the NBA game when everyone defending him is as big as him but also quicker.
If he’s not clearly overmatching his opponents then what is he? And the most important question — if Cade isn’t a point guard, is he really worth the No. 1 pick?
The first question worries me and the next question excites me. I think Cunningham was actually miscast as a point guard at Oklahoma State and playing him at the wing will actually accentuate all his skills and remove some of the warts from his game.
At OK State, Cunningham had a penchant for getting his pocket picked by much smaller point guards who could get low to the ground and attack his dribble. He also often found himself in no man's land as the only ball handler on the floor. His team would run an action, nothing would come of it and then his teammates would stand beyond the 3-point line waiting for Cade to make something happen.
Often, he was able to do just that. Other times, he would back down into the post and two or more defenders would swarm him and cause a turnover. There were also plenty of ill-fated step-back jumpers that just need to be removed from his shot repository.
Playing Cunningham next to a true point guard and a secondary playmaker could do wonders for his game. Cunningham already has a dangerous catch-and-shoot game, is becoming deadly with the off-the-dribble 3 and could reach new heights with the better space and movement he’ll be provided in the NBA.
Just. Take. Cade.
Imagine How the Pistons Can Use Cunningham
Think of a lineup with a returning Jerami Grant as the No. 1 option, Cade Cunningham as a safety release valve who can create open opportunities for guys on the perimeter or some funky pick-and-roll actions with Grant and others. Think of Killian Hayes bringing the ball up the floor and splitting initiator duties with Cade so the Pistons can create and exploit a defense’s weakest link. Punishing screens set by Isaiah Stewart with a pick-and-pop option or those same screens with Mason Plumlee as a punishing roll man option.
Add Saddiq Bey as an expert at finding an open passing lane along the perimeter and a solid 3-point shooting threat. Or go small by adding Frank Jackson or Wayne Ellington for even more 3-point options.
Think about a Pistons team with a truly imposing backcourt defense led by the 6-foot-5 Hayes and 6-foot-8 Cunningham in the backcourt flanked by Bey or Hamidou Diallo with Grant at power forward. This becomes a switching nightmare and an easy path into the paint hard to come by. Then you have Stewart and his 7-foot-4 wingspan in the middle blocking shots and gobbling up rebounds.
Cunningham is not a slam-dunk pick like Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis. There are question marks about his ceiling and some holes in his game. But he’s the right player at the right time for the Detroit Pistons.
When Commissioner Adam Silver walks onto that stage on NBA Draft night, he’s going to announce, “With the first pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, the Detroit Pistons select Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham.”
And a new era of Detroit Pistons basketball will officially begin.