When your team has the number one pick in the NBA Draft, excitement around the team reaches very high levels. We are witnessing that right now with the Detroit Pistons after they made Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham the number one overall pick and hopefully the face of the next Pistons Championship team. However, there are going to be bumps in the road on the way to the pinnacle of the NBA, including the rookie season.
This article isn’t to ruin the fun everybody is having with the anointed Pistons savior, but it is to at least set some realistic expectations for Cunningham and the Pistons. Everybody wants to dream of making the play-in tournament, but there is a lot that has to break right for that to happen.
Expectations for Cade
The easiest way to set up expectations for Cade is to look at some comparable players and how they fared during their rookie seasons. Keep in mind, some of the players I am going to look at are guys that Cade has been compared to during the draft process, guys like Luka Doncic and Grant Hill. While all of these are not perfect comparisons, it at least gives us a baseline stat-wise to look at.
Luka Doncic had an impressive rookie year and if everything breaks perfectly for Cade Cunningham, he might reach that level, but expecting Cade to emulate that as a rookie is setting yourself up for disappointment. Luka averaged 21 points, 6 assists, and 7 rebounds per game on 43/33/71 shooting splits as a rookie. These numbers actually compare pretty favorably to Cade’s college stats of 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on shooting splits of 44/40/85.
Cunningham is capable of reaching these levels as a rookie, but I wouldn’t expect him to put up numbers quite this good. Keep in mind that Luka came into the NBA from a Professional League in Europe where he played since he was 16. Although European basketball is not on the level of NBA basketball, he was still playing against grown men, which made him better prepared to face grown men in the NBA. Also, keep in mind that despite Luka Doncic putting up impressive numbers, the Mavericks finished the season 33-49. So for those of you who think the Pistons are a shoo-in for the Play-In Tournament, I would cool my expectations a bit.
Another comparison for Cade is one that Pistons fans know well. Grant Hill is a fellow big wing that could initiate the offense. He burst onto the scene after the Pistons took him third overall in the 1994 draft. He made the All-Star team as a rookie and went on to win Rookie of the Year (with Jason Kidd). He put up 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. His shooting splits were 48/15/73. Grant Hill was never a great 3 point shooter, but the 3-pointer also wasn’t emphasized as much as it is today.
The Pistons also finished the season 28-54. They were 20-62 the season before, so it was only an eight-win improvement.
I think Grant Hill’s numbers are pretty realistic for Cade Cunningham to get to as a rookie. He will obviously shoot threes better because he was a 40% 3-point shooter in college, but he won’t be able to attack the basket as well as Grant Hill could.
Grant Hill was also 22 years old as a rookie. I bring up this in the context of Cade Cunningham because he is 19 years old and coming from college. He already struggled with turnovers in college (4 per game), so there is going to be some adjustment to the speed of the NBA.
I think some realistic numbers for Cade Cunningham during his rookie season are: 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists on 43/36/80 shooting. I think he is going to struggle with turnovers as he did a bit in college as he tries to adjust to the NBA. With Dwane Casey’s whole mantra of rookies “earning it,” it could cause Cade to have a short leash at times depending on how well the Pistons are doing. Dwane Casey is going to let Cade play through mistakes, but he is also going to do what he thinks is best for Cade’s development.
Can Cade Win Rookie of the Year?
I think Cunningham still has a good shot at winning Rookie of the Year, but he also probably won’t be the leading scorer amongst rookies, which tends to matter a lot to voters for awards. Most draft analysts regard Jalen Green as the best pure scorer in this draft class. He is also going to be playing on a Rockets team that will play faster than the Pistons. Because of that, I would pick Jalen Green for Rookie of the Year because he is probably going to lead all rookies in scoring. However, there are exceptions to this “scorers win awards” narrative like LaMelo Ball winning Rookie of the Year over Anthony Edwards last season.
With all of that being said, we can take a look at past number 1 picks and how they fared in the Rookie of the Year voting to get an idea of Cade’s chances.
Number 1 picks have not fared all that well in Rookie of the Year voting since 2010. The only number 1 picks to win the award since 2010 are Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin, Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Ben Simmons. There are also weird outliers like Michael Carter-Williams and Malcolm Brogdon winning the award.
This goes to show that the Rookie of the Year award is pretty random and the “best player” from the class isn’t guaranteed to win the award. If Cade puts up the numbers that I listed above, he has a good shot, but I wouldn’t be putting all my money on it.
Expectations for the Pistons
It is important to keep in mind that the Pistons had the second-worst record in the league last season. And while they played a lot of competitive games, things are going to have to break right for them to compete for the play-in game, let alone the playoffs. Cade Cunningham will definitely make the team better as a rookie, but how much better remains to be seen.
Even if the Pistons are better, other teams in the Eastern Conference are going to get better. And as I pointed out above, even when players like Luka and Grant Hill had fantastic rookie seasons, their teams did not do THAT much better or come anywhere near competing for the playoffs.
I know everybody is on cloud nine after drafting Cade Cunningham (I am too). But we also have to temper our expectations a bit. I don’t want fans turning on Cade because he didn’t score 25 points per game as a rookie and lead the Pistons to the playoffs.
The Pistons have their face of the franchise, now it is time to wait it out and see it all unfold.