After weeks of speculation, rumor, innuendo and sources going off the record to give you the supposed inside scoop, it was Cade Cunningham selected first overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 2021 NBA Draft. It was always Cade.
The selection will define the career of GM Troy Weaver, could reshape the legacy of head coach Dwane Casey, and is the most consequential single decision the Pistons have made in nearly two decades.
Welcome to Detroit, Cade Cunningham. Your job, if you’re up for it, is to lead your teammates to the playoffs, become the face of a storied franchise and have the weight of an entire city on your shoulders.
Then again, one of the reasons Weaver decided Cunningham was the right pick was that it was a burden Cunningham can bear.
Cade has won everywhere he’s gone, from one of the most stacked rosters in high school history (where he was the best player on the floor), to leading the Oklahoma State Sooners to the NCAA tournament and subsequently being named a first-team All-American and Freshman of the Year.
The basic stats for those who are interested: 20.1 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 4.0 turnovers. A shooting line of .438/.400/.846. If you haven’t seen enough film of Cade leading up to the draft, here is a taste of what he did against the No. 7-ranked Oklahoma Sooners:
Cunningham has always generated headlines, and he’s amassed some gaudy stats, but now as professional in the NBA, none of it means anything as be begins a years-long journey toward greatness.
He might have spent the past year as the odds on favorite to be selected first overall, but that doesn’t mean the selection of Cunningham was easy. And we won’t know it was the right call for a while.
But he’s certainly more than a product of hype. He was one of the most dangerous scorers in college basketball in isolation, and he led college basketball in clutch scoring. With questions out of high school that he was not a reliable shooter, he subsequently hit 42% of his catch-and-shoot threes at solid volume and nearly 40% on off-the-dribble 3s.
He also held his own as a 6-foot-8 point guard who could goad the defense into overcommitting to him and then making a baseball pass, skip pass or fit the ball into tight windows on a bounce pass.
Is he perfect? Far from it, and he will have a lot to prove and a lot he must improve on to become one of the best players in the NBA, which is an oft-stated goals of his.
He had more turnovers than assists as a point guard, he shot poorly from inside the arc, his handle is a little loose when he dribbles into congested spaces, and he does not possess the elite athleticism of many of his new peers in the NBA.
Don’t get it twisted, though. Cunningham remains a remarkable prospect. He will join a rebuilding Pistons team with Killian Hayes to share the ball-handling duties, Jerami Grant to form a dangerous pick-and-roll partner, Saddiq Bey as the deadly 3-point outlet he never had at OKST and Isaiah Stewart grabbing rebounds, and punishing everyone (including Cade in practice) with his hard-nosed, relentless play.
Even with all those potential benefits, the decision surely wasn’t easy for Detroit. The spectre of Evan Mobely out of USC as a four-position dominant defender with an emerging jump shot who could be the next great big man loomed large. And on a team in desperate need of explosive and efficient scoring, the thought of adding Jalen Green was surely enticing. This is a franchise that has passed up on Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker and Bam Adebayo in recent years.
But it is Cade. It was always Cade. Now it’s time to go to work.