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Breaking down how Cade Cunningham’s game translates to the NBA

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Cunningham will have an immediate impact with his ability to read the floor and shoot, but his future will be defined by ball-handling and help-side defense

Detroit Pistons Introduce First NBA Draft First Overall Pick Cade Cunningham Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

While it might have seemed quiet, the Detroit Pistons had a very eventful draft. They, of course, walked away with the prize of the draft in Cade Cunningham, but also drafted three players in the second round (Isaiah Livers, Luka Garza, and Balsa Koprivica), and signed a priority undrafted free agent to a two-way contract (Chris Smith). These five rookies are all intriguing as potential additions to the Pistons young core. Every NBA team hopes to find one potential rotation player in a given draft, but could the Pistons have found five? While it is virtually unheard of for a team to find five real players in any given cycle, every player in a draft has a chance and that includes all five of the Pistons draft night acquisitions. Let’s break down their games and potential roles both for their rookie seasons and future in the NBA, starting with Cade Cunningham.

Everyone knows Cade Cunningham. Since his junior year of high school, he has been the presumed No. 1 overall pick. Cunningham is a 6-foot-8 forward with guard skills and solid athletic tools that project him as the most important archetype in basketball; a wing that can run an offense and compete defensively. He played at Montverde in high school, EYBL with the Texas Titans, Team USA in Fiba, and then played at Oklahoma State in college. He was uniquely dominant everywhere he played. At Montverde, he was the offensive hub in the half-court and managed the game for the other high school superstars on his team. For the Texas Titans, he played an up-tempo pace and lived in transition, often finding his teammate Greg Brown III for alley-oops. For Team USA, he was incredible playing with other ball-handlers while also getting the majority of the usage as a playmaker. Finally, at Oklahoma State, he stepped into the role of go-to scorer and proved himself as an elite scorer, shot-creator, and all-around offensive threat.

Stats

20.2 PPG, 3.5 APG, 6.2 RPG, 57.4% TS, 29.2% USG, 20.8% AST

Immediate Skills

As a No. 1 overall pick, Cunningham will be expected to perform immediately at the NBA level. Defining what skills are most easily translatable to the NBA will help define what he can look like this season. Project rookies are fraught with peril. Rookies are generally bad and most have a negative impact on the court, but Cade could potentially be one of those elite rookies that are immediately contributing to, and driving, winning basketball.

Court Mapping

Cunningham’s most translatable skill is his elite court mapping on both ends. Court mapping is all about understanding the players on the court, where the empty space is, and how it can be exploited. On offense, this will mostly show up with him as a passer. He has an uncanny ability to recognize the space defenses leave, whether finding rollers, cutters, or shooters. It could also show up with him as a relocator off the ball, both cutting and maneuvering around the arc. Defensively, this skill can make him an elite disruptor with his size. He can shoot passing lanes, cut-off drives, and rotate to the right spot at any given time. This skill, when combined with his size, gives him legitimate two-way value from the very beginning.

Pull-Up Shooting

The next skill Cade immediately brings to the table is pull-up shooting. Cunningham is an elite self-organizer and this allows him to hit shots with both positive and negative momentum. This means he can punish drops with pull-ups or create for himself with step-backs. Pull-up shooting from a 6-foot-8 wing who can pass is a pretty rare skill. He can also comfortably hit spot-ups when playing with other creators. His shooting was considered a weakness going into college, and with the one-year sample size being all there is to go off of, it can be slightly worrying. However, the form, the comfort level, and the fluidity all leads me to believe the shot is going to translate immediately.

Pace and Poise

The final immediate skills Cade brings are pace and poise. Cunningham has shown the ability to play up-tempo in the full-court, and he has also shown that he can slow down and control the game. That is not often seen from players his age with his usage capabilities, but it’s what makes Cunningham special. He can comfortably control the ball and make defenses shiver as a ball-handler. He can dice teams up as both a passer and a scorer in the full-court and the half-court. That versatility is what makes him a potentially special player as early as his rookie season.

He will likely be the lead ball-handler on the Pistons this year regardless of the position he plays. He’ll get a lot of reps in grab-and-go scenarios, pick-and-roll sets, and even some isolations. The Pistons will get an immediate view of what Cade can be as a high-usage offensive hub in the NBA. They have some other potential ball-handlers, but no one that will take much usage from Cade. Expect him to have some growing pains, specifically when it comes to dealing with ball pressure, but his incredible court-mapping, shooting, and pace will immediately translate to the NBA.

Potential Skills

Like any player, Cade has a lot of skills that will dictate his NBA future depending on whether they grow or stagnate. These skills are not weaknesses, but it is not certain they will translate to the NBA game or develop enough for him to truly hit his ceiling.

Movement Shooting

The first of these “swing skills” for Cade is movement shooting. This is not a skill that is often mentioned around Cunningham, but it could significantly change his projection and add to his versatility to play off of other superstars. The indicators that Cade could potentially be a movement shooter are his self-organization skills, current shooting prowess, and movement ability. It’s just that, he hasn’t done it yet. As previously mentioned, Cade’s ability to shoot did not pop until this season at Oklahoma State, and because he hardly played off the ball there were not a lot of opportunities for him to shoot off movement. If the Pistons ever bring in another star, or if Killian Hayes proves he deserves on-ball reps, Cade could potentially be weaponized off-ball as a movement shooter.

Ball-Handling Under Pressure

The next skill that needs development is his ball-handling in pressure scenarios. Cunningham is a solid ball-handler for his size when in space or when facing drops in pick-and-roll, but he has had issues when pressured by smaller guards. For him to improve this skill, he will have to learn to leverage his strength against pressure, and he will have to improve his flexibility. Cade will almost certainly learn to leverage his strength against NBA athletes, especially with the on-ball reps he will be granted, but the flexibility is a bit more of a question. NBA development staffs have proven effective at adding flexibility to players with stiff cores, but no development is a certainty. If he learns to handle pressure in an elite fashion, he could become a true heliocentric creator at the highest levels.

Help-Side Defense

The final potential skill Cade could develop is his help-side rim protection. Help-side rim protection is the most valuable defensive skill a forward can contribute in the NBA. If Cade can unlock this skill, he could be a true defensive sin-eater. If a forward can truly step into the sin-eater archetype, he can make up for the mistakes his teammates make on defense. Cunningham has the potential with his size and elite court-mapping. The worry is that he is not an elite athlete and that limits the effect he can have on finishers at the basket. Unlocking this skill could lead to Cade being an All-Defense caliber player.


If Cade truly develops, there is no limit to his ceiling. His size, playmaking, defense, and scoring are a rarely seen commodity in the NBA. He could be elite as both a heliocentric creator and an off-ball wrecking ball. That is an absurd dichotomy. His versatility means the Pistons could do get creative and mix-and-match multiple pieces and skillsets on the roster, and Cade’s ability to command the offense could still drive success.

He could run virtually every set on offense, control the pace in transition, contribute at a high level defensively, and he could play off of others if need be. Cade is the ultimate basketball skeleton key at his ceiling, the player that could be additive in any line-up. He could potentially be an MVP due to his offensive ability, but he could also be an All-Defense caliber player and an elite second star if paired with another on-ball offensive creator. That versatility is almost unheard of and it makes Cade a truly special prospect.