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Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, and making sure Hayes isn’t the next Dennis Smith Jr

The Pistons must balance maximizing Cade’s effectiveness, developing Killian and, if need be, moving on before it is too late

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Oklahoma City Thunder v Detroit Pistons Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Back in 2018, Luka Dončić was breaking onto the scene for the Dallas Mavericks as a future superstar. This left the Mavericks’ first-round pick the year prior, Dennis Smith Jr, the odd man out. Smith went from point guard of the future to backup in Dallas to disappointment in New York to trade throw in to Detroit to currently unemployed. Smith is still just 23 years old.

The Smith situation is instructive as Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes could be a similarly tough fit together. What should the Pistons take from the Mavericks’ decision that would prevent Hayes from becoming the next Smith?

Despite having a full year of NBA experience ahead of Cunningham, Hayes is the much bigger mystery box. To some extent, we understand what Cade will bring to the Detroit Pistons, and what we should expect from him moving forward. We know Cade will be a shot-creating wing who can also orchestrate the offense as a primary or secondary ball handler. We know much less about Hayes’ potential role, skills and the type of player he will be.

Hayes’ primary value will be derived from his playmaking prowess. He is capable of mapping the court, and he does well to find shooters, rollers, and cutters as a passer. What is nice about Killian’s passing is that he can do it both as a lead initiator or on secondary actions. He does not need to hold the ball to be a playmaker because he doesn’t probe much as he looks to create lanes for others. Instead, he reads the defense and makes incredibly quick decisions. To really maximize this playmaking, he will need to continue to grow as a downhill driver. Being a constant threat to generate rim-pressure would be huge for his future. He is already strong, and has average burst to get downhill, but he cannot go right and his downhill handle is limited, so that is certainly an up-in-the-air skill.

Killian’s other major strength is his point-of-attack defense. Hayes is deft at maneuvering around screens, and his strength really helps him bump guards off their preferred spots. Killian’s size helps him project as a potentially switchable defender as well. His strength is notable, particularly in his core, and that will help him handle some wings and forwards in a switching scheme. This potential versatility from a point guard really helps project Killian as a playoff-quality player if his offensive game comes around.

What Works with Cade

Cade has received a wide array of comparisons to young NBA stars, guys like Dončić and Jayson Tatum are often mentioned. However, the difference between how to build a team around these two players is palpable. It is important to understand Cade’s weaknesses as a player and what type of guard would best complement his game.

Cunningham’s main weakness as an on-ball player is his lack of downhill ability. Cade does not have elite burst, and he is still learning how to use his frame to get into the paint. This is a similar issue to one seen with Jayson Tatum. Tatum and Cade both lack the craft and burst to create downhill advantages, this means that both of these players benefit from an offense with a different primary attacker who can generate the majority of the rim pressure. The Luka comp was always a rough one for Cade because they’re inherently different types of scorers. Dončić generates his gravity through collapsing the defense into the paint whereas Cunningham and Tatum stretch the defense with their pull-up shooting.

As mentioned above, Killian could potentially develop as an elite downhill driver if he can diversify his attack a bit. This means that, even with the shooting concerns, Hayes could be a potentially ideal fit next to Cade if Killian can generate enough rim gravity. His defense is also ideal for a scheme built around Cade. He can pick up the guards at the point of attack, allowing for Cade to play as more of a roamer. He can also switch down, allowing for plenty of playoff-level defensive versatility in the long-run.

There are areas of the game that make Killian Hayes seem like an ideal fit next to Cade Cunningham if he hits, but there are plenty of deficiencies the team will have to plan for to make the pairing work.

What Detracts from Cade

The biggest red flag for Hayes, as with Smith, is his shooting deficiencies. Killian had promise as a shooter when he was starring in Europe, but it is yet to translate to any kind of NBA proficiency. The big issue with Killian’s shot is the inconsistency in his shot prep. He is very uncomfortable when shooting off the catch, not knowing how wide his base needs to be or how to step into a shot. He looks slightly more comfortable as a pull-up shooter, but the base is still wide and the shot is still slow. For Cunningham to be optimized, it would be ideal for him to have at least three shooters surrounding him. Creating plenty of space in the paint would maximize Cade’s his playmaking and cover up for some of his immediate rim-pressure issues. If Killian cannot figure out the jump shot, it will be an uphill battle for him to fit on the next great Pistons team.

Killian’s jumper is the obvious swing skill for whether or not he can fit next to Cade. If Hayes cannot shoot, he will struggle to exist in an off-ball role with any sort of capacity. He is not the athlete who can thrive as an elite cutter off-the-ball, and the shot has to be there for him to play with a high-usage wing like Cunningham. Killian could potentially fill a backup role for the Pistons long term, potentially spelling Cade of some usage during the regular season to keep him healthy and rested, but backup point guard is not the kind of player you’re hoping to land with a seventh overall pick.

The DSJ Situation

Dennis Smith Jr was the ninth pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, and he had a very promising rookie season. He had issues as a decision-maker and shooter, but he was every bit the elite athlete he was heralded as. He had an incredible knack for getting to the rim and was solid at converting those attempts. However, in the next draft, the Mavericks changed the future of their whole franchise by drafting Dončić who subsequently had one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory. It quickly became obvious Smith was only going to hold him back. At the trade deadline, Smith was sent to the Knicks as part of a deal that landed the Mavericks Kristaps Porzingis.

Smith then went on to have a bumpy few seasons after being traded from Dallas, making it look like the Mavs made the right choice. However, there is more nuance to the situation as whole. The Mavericks were right to recognize the fit issues early and move on from DSJ before his value completely cratered.

Holding onto players for too long can ruin a player’s value, and when that player is a bad fit it can also stunt the player’s potential growth. The Knicks’ Kevin Knox is another good example. He had clear issues early in his career, but the Knicks held onto him until his value was virtually nonexistent. Now the Knicks would be lucky to get a real second-round pick for him.

Another warning for the Pistons is not just working to avoid Hayes becoming the next Smith Jr., but ensuring they don’t fall into the same trap the Mavericks did when they decided to move on from Smith.

Acquiring a star big man like Porzingis to complement your star guard makes sense on paper, but the issues with the Porzingis trade were immediate and obvious. He was always a questionable fit next to Luka, and he was about to get extremely expensive.

The Mavericks were forced to pay the injury-prone Porzingis the full five-year max to avoid the circumstance of him walking and the Mavs’ swinging a big trade that left them with nothing. The team didn’t get a long look at Porzingis next to Luka before handing him his big deal, and it turns out they don’t fit well together.

Porzingis cannot take any of the usage load off of Dončić’s shoulders and does not bring a lot of rim gravity to the table. A star veteran guard or wing would have been a preferable player to play next to Luka. I think the Mavericks also should not have been so hesitant to get an older player to pair with Dončić as he is clearly already a championship caliber player and capitalizing on his rookie contract would have been ideal. There is a small obsession over “young cores” when maximizing player fit and roster construction should be looked at as more important than purely fitting a timeline.

What the Pistons Should Learn

The big thing the Pistons should learn is that the team needs to be built around Cade’s strengths and weaknesses. That might sound obvious, but there are times when the fit on paper sounds a lot better than on the floor. As nice as it would be to say the Pistons should simply surround Cade with shooting and let him carry all of the usage, that is being extremely optimistic about Cade reaching that top end outcome. The ideal fit would be a guard or wing who can shoot and defend, but also provides a lot of rim pressure to let Cade play against an already disadvantaged defense. There are outcomes where Cade can be the primary advantage creator, but it would be optimal to buoy him with another player that can churn then defense.

If the Pistons decide a big trade is in order to get a star-caliber player next to Cade, the Pistons should not overthink the age of their trade target. There is this thought around the NBA that creating a timeline that makes sense, with a young core of players all around the same age, is the optimal team-building strategy. However, the most important aspect of building a team should always be creating a roster that makes sense on the floor first and foremost.

The Kristaps Porzingis trade was not a disaster, but it really did feel like the first order of business for the Mavericks was to get a player who fit Luka’s timeline. The peril here is obvious because Luka’s timeline is now. The Mavericks were linked to many older free agents the past two offseasons, seemingly an effort to reconcile for their past sins. Planning for a team five years down the road when you already have a player to build around is just a really tough scenario to put yourself in as a team.

The last big thing the Pistons should learn from the DSJ situation is that timing is everything. Smith Jr tanked his value in the time post-trade, and it made it look the Mavericks had moved at just the right time. However, this could certainly go both ways. Had DSJ really hit his stride in New York, it would have looked like the Mavs sold low. The Pistons can afford to be patient with Killian, getting him reps with and without Cade Cunningham throughout the season and really feeling out what he can be.

Killian could still have value on certain teams, and moving him for a player that fits better with Cade, and making the move at the right time could make sense for the Pistons. If Detroit decides to move on from Killian, they should look for a player who can generate significant rim pressure to pair with Cade. Perhaps Spencer Dinwiddie, Collin Sexton, or Malcolm Brogdon. These are all players younger than 30 with contracts that make potential sense, and they fit well next to Cade. The best case scenario, of course, is for Hayes to fit that same role with a bargain contract at the same age as Cunningham. But if the Pistons are uncomfortable with the fit or Hayes’ potential, there are moves that can and should be made.