Cade Cunningham had the best game of his young career Tuesday against the Denver Nuggets, and the stats he put up were absolutely eye popping. He scored 34 points, and he added 8 assists, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks. That was something no rookie had done since Michael Jordan.
The most glaring state, however, might have been the fact that he got all 34 of those points without a single trip to the free-throw line. Cunningham has slowly been getting acclimated to the NBA, and his processing, high basketball IQ and elite skills are on display more with every passing game. But he’s struggled all year to get to the free-throw line, and that doesn’t appear to be changing.
Currently, Cunningham is averaging just 2.1 trips to the charity stripe per game. Per 36 minutes, the high-usage guard gets 2.3 free throws. That ranks just 47th among all rookies this season.
It is something coach Dwane Casey touched on after Cunningham’s big game against the Nuggets.
“He’s a gamer,” Casey said, per the Detroit Free Press. ”He’s going to the basket. He’s not getting the whistle. He’s got to keep his composure, and it’s tough. I feel for him, because he’s going in there getting hit and he’s not getting those calls. I was just telling him to talk to officials and communicate with them, the right way. Because he’s going to be in this league a long time, and these officials are not going anywhere.
“He’s gotta talk to them because we were watching the film, he’s getting hit but they’re missing the calls, which they’re going to miss some of them. But he’s gotta keep attacking and using his size and length.”
By the eye test, Casey certainly appears to be correct. But I’m a biased Pistons fans, so that sent me down the rabbit hole to see if the numbers backed up my biases and the eye test.
Cunningham has the second-most drives to the basket among rookies at 453, but has coaxed just 21 fouls, but that only drops him to fourth on the list because rookies have a tough time generating contact that gets a whistle. True to form, if you look at the 46 players in the NBA with at least 250 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler, the bottom five in drawing a foul are young players — Cunningham, Darius Garland, Josh Giddey, Davion Mitchell and LaMelo Ball.
Looking back on Cade’s college experience, he averaged nearly 6 free throws per game. It’s no surprise that a player who dominated physically and from a skill perspective would see a drop in free throws after transitioning from playing against overmatched college players to the best athletes in the world in the NBA.
But even by the standards of recent draft picks, Cunningham’s lack of whistle is startling. I took a look at the free-throw rates of the top 10 picks in the past three drafts who played college basketball (23 players total), and average player got to the line about one-third less in the pros than in college. Cunningham, however, has gotten to the line 65% less compared to his one year at Oklahoma State.
That precipitous drop is matched in recent years by only Garland in 2020, and Jalen Smith and Obi Toppin in 2021. It should also be noted that Smith played just 461 minutes his rookie season.
Free Throw Rate from College to NBA
Cunningham’s even-keeled approach and calm demeanor may be working for and against him somewhat. His attitude and style are great benefits i helping him dictate the pace of the game and in him finding his spots. He also is likely able to get away with a little contact that is not called, and that is helping him improve his finishing at the rim.
But if you ask Cunningham, the fouls will come when the Pistons actually start winning some games.
“Maybe use my voice more,” Cunningham said after the Nuggets game, per the Free Press. ”Maybe yell, or something. Just continue to play the game. We might need to win more games to get a little bit more respect from the referees for them to blow the whistle for us. We can only control what we can control.”
That’s true enough, but there’s also little doubt that, biases asside, Cunningham has earned a better whistle than he’s received so far. If Cade is going to keep his calm approach, maybe it’s incumbent on Casey to advocate (loudly) on behalf of his young star, even if it costs him a couple technicals and a lighter pocketbook along the way.