Despite Summer League being a poor indicator of future success (anyone remember Henry Ellenson’s dominant performances in Orlando?), it’s natural to look at the top NBA draft picks from 2021 and compare their performances against No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham.
It’s also easy to start wondering whether the Detroit Pistons got it wrong when they took Cunningham first overall.
Some Pistons fans are already questioning if Jalen Green, taken one spot after Cunningham, should have been the pick. At least, they were before Green bashed the city of Detroit.
To be fair, Green has been phenomenal scoring the basketball (averaging 20.3 points per game, which includes a game in which he played less than two quarters due to injury). Even looking beyond the scoring, Green has statistically outplayed Cunningham in almost every category to date.
Of course, box scores don’t always tell the whole story. Sticking with the example of Green, it could be argued that Cunningham actually outplayed Green when they were matched up against each other. In fact, ESPN’s Mike Schmitz came away more impressed with Cunningham, after the Nos. 1 and 2 picks went head-to-head in Tuesday night’s primetime matchup, despite Houston winning and Green statistically outproducing Cunningham.
I’ll say once more that Summer League performances are not indicative of future NBA success. That being said, if you really want to compare Cunningham to the rest of the field you have to look beyond the box score. It’s the film that shows just how truly special he is.
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Creating offense without the ball
This clip seems unsuspecting. Saddiq Bey catches the ball on the wing and drives in for an easy layup. Of course, the driving line was only created because Cade started moving his man out of the way the second that Bey put the ball on the floor. This is very subtle, and while technically this is a moving screen, Cade gets away with it because he times his movement so precisely that it appears to the officials that he is trying to move to the free throw line and that the defender is denying him an easy path. This isn’t something you typically see from a rookie.
In transition defense there are two primary objectives. The first being that whoever gets back first is responsible for protecting the basket (no easy shots at the rim), and the second being that the ball handler is stopped from creating an easy scoring opportunity for himself or a teammate.
Here, Bey is the first defender back so he sets himself just under the free throw line in preparation to stop a driving ball handler or rotate over on a pass. Killian Hayes fills the roll of stopping ball as he picks up the ball handler just on the other side of half court.
As the Pistons scramble to get matched up and stop transition offense, Cunningham notices a defender has crept behind Bey, who is swiveling between the perimeter player on his right and the ball handler, who is on his left. Cunningham immediately starts pointing to the creeping defender and talking to Bey to get him to slide over. In the process of of trying to get Bey in the right spot, Cunningham is moving into position to grab the wing on the perimeter so that Bey can sink down and pick up the player lurking baseline.
Unfortunately, Bey apparently doesn’t hear or see Cunningham and continues to drift toward the wing. Just as Bey looks over his left shoulder to gauge where the offensive player is at on the wing, Hayes is beaten and the Pistons give up an easy score.
There were a lot of things wrong about this possession. Hayes was beaten, (though he did a good job of forcing the ball handler toward the middle of the court where help was available), and Bey did a poor job of staying in position to play help defense. Cunningham, however, did everything right, showing excellent communication and basketball IQ.
Leadership and Communication
When Pistons General Manager Troy Weaver calls Cunningham a “human connector, on the floor and off the floor” this is exactly what he means. Ten seconds into the clip, we are shown Cade communicating in transition defense to Killian to “stop ball” (remember one of two primary rules for transition defense) and that he is behind him (protecting basket, the second primary rule of transition). Prior to that, Cunningham emphasizes to the team in a huddle after a defensive foul to “keep them in front of you, all five back”. Prior to this comment, the Pistons had given up quite a few transition baskets, something he has noticed and is communicating to his teammates that they all need to shore up. What I love about this is that Cunningham verbalized an opportunity for the team to play better, and then he acted on that by getting back on defense and helping Hayes’ decision-making process on transition defense through communication. This is elite level leadership.
It obviously didn’t stop there. Cade was just as vocal and engaged on the bench, as he was when he was on the court.
Making the “right” plays
This is perhaps the most consistent thing that hasn’t always shown up in the box score in Summer League. Cunningham is almost always making the right play with the ball, even if it doesn’t always translate into an assist. Here, Cunningham gets the ball in transition. The Pistons have numbers, and Sekou Doumbouya does a nice job of getting out in front. Cunningham pushes the ball down the right side of the court which makes the defender who is furthest back have to make a decision.
With Doumbouya running down the middle of the court, the Rockets defender has to either stop ball or stop the streaking Doumbouya. The Rockets defender chooses ball, sliding his body towads Cunningham. Right as the defender makes his decision, Cunningham already has the ball in his right hand cocked back for a pitch right down the middle. Cade hits Doumbouya perfectly, allowing him to catch the ball in stride. Unfortunately, Doumbouya blows the easy lay up.
Cade has countless examples, most commonly with Tyler Cook, where he has set up his teammates nicely for an easy score. Rarely has the team actually finished the nice set up.
The plays and intangibles covered, highlight just how good Cade Cunningham is. Not one of these things shows up in the box score, yet they are and will continue to be, critically important to the Pistons overall success. Summer League play doesn’t always translate to the NBA. However, the basketball IQ, communication, and leadership Cunningham has displayed will. When looking beyond the box score, it’s easy to see why Cade was selected with the first pick in the 2021 NBA draft by the Pistons.