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Cade Cunningham: The Half-Court Maestro

Cunningham’s enhanced play in a half court setting has been key to Detroit’s improved play of late.

Washington Wizards v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Since Cade Cunningham’s well-documented “slow start,” it feels as though the Detroit Piston rookie’s impact and consistency have grown by leaps and bounds. Similar to his counterpart Jerami Grant (whose play I recently wrote about), Cunningham seems to have found his stride since the NBA’s annual All Star Break in February.

Upon returning from a successful weekend in Cleveland where Cunningham was awarded the Rising Stars MVP, the No. 1 overall selection is averaging 22.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists while shooting an impressive 46.4% from the field. Most importantly though, Cunningham’s All Star-like numbers have translated to Detroit’s most competitive stretch of basketball since their last playoff appearance in 2019.

Fresh off a scintillating 34-point performance against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, now felt like the perfect time to shed light on the areas Cunningham has improved on as a half-court creator of offense.

Mid-Range Scoring

During his lone season at Oklahoma State, Cunningham showed an uncanny ability to generate high-quality looks in the mid-range. However, this signature aspect of the 20-year-old’s game was almost nonexistent during the NBA Summer League and his first couple of months in the big league.

Prior to the turn of the calendar year, Cunningham had only 26 field goal attempts between 14 and 21 feet. During this span, the Texas native often struggled to navigate to his desired location within the arc. At times, it appeared Cunningham’s handle limited his ability to manipulate the defense as a means to open the required shot window.

After dealing with a bout of COVID in late December, Cunningham returned in January with a newfound focus on scoring in the mid-range. Since Jan. 14, he has displayed significant improvement as a dribble shooter. Per NBA.com, Cunningham is shooting a shade under 40% (39.8) on pull-up jumpers, a significant increase from the 29.3% prior to Jan. 14.

One of the main reasons Cunningham was drawing comparisons to Luka Doncic pre-draft was his ability to play at his own pace. Cunningham flashed this aspect of his game during November and December, but the consistency wavered. In the month of January, we saw Cunningham find prior levels of comfortability with the ball in his hands, and it resulted in more shots inside the three-point line.

FG% by Shot Location

Shot Location Pre All Star Break FG% Post All Star Break FG%
Shot Location Pre All Star Break FG% Post All Star Break FG%
Rim 54% 61%
Short-Mid 36% 38%
Long-Mid 37% 53%
All-Midrange 36% 43%
Per Cleaning The Glass | cleaningtheglass.com | 03.31.2022

Since the NBA’s All-Star Break in February, Cunningham has shown exponential growth as a scorer from 21 feet and in. Particularly in the high post area where he has seen his shooting percentages increase by 17%. It's in this region Cunningham has developed a deadly pull-up jumper, especially when driving to his favoured right side of the floor.

In the team's past 16 outings, more often than not Detroit fans have been exposed to a clutch pull-up jumper from Cunningham in the mid-range. While the three-ball has regressed in recent weeks, Detroit’s prized rookie provides perimeter shot creation abilities not seen on the roster in more than a decade years.

Finishing at the Rim

One of the major knocks on Cunningham entering the league was his inability to get into the paint and score at the cup. Scouts noted the Montverde product was;

“Not the quickest or fastest player...it shows at times when he is attacking the rim and/or trying to turn the corner in the pick and roll” - NBADraft.net


In his first month of NBA action, Cunningham struggled mightily to get into the lane, often passing up drive attempts in favour of a triple-try. The offseason ankle injury and previously mentioned pace adjustment also factored into the 20-year-old’s three-point heavy shot selection. Per Cleaning the Glass, during the month of November (16 games), Cunningham attempted only 20% of his shots at the rim, converting on 51%, placing him in just the 10th percentile.

As the season has progressed, so has Cunningham’s willingness to attack the rim. In the month of November, he drove to the rim 11.1 times a game, scoring 5.3 points on a sub-optimal 49.3 FG%. Fast-forward to March, Cunningham has almost doubled his frequency and points on drives, putting up 11.5 points on 19.8 drives per game. The spike in production has not come at the cost of efficiency, rather, the rookie-guard has increased his field goal percentage to a decent 52.9%.

Per NBA.com, Cunningham currently ranks 6th in the league for points scored off drives in the month of March. Placing him above the likes of Trae Young, James Harden and Donovan Mitchell.

Part of Cunningham’s success as a drive threat is a result of better ball control. While his turnovers are still high, Cunningham has seemed more comfortable when handling the rock. The improved handle has allowed the rookie to probe defenders, ‘bending’ the line of defense and attacking creases for points at the rim. A perfect example of Cunningham’s combination of pace and driving ability can be seen when he attacks the basket along the baseline:

Rather than driving with pure force, Cunningham patiently canters along the baseline, head up, constantly monitoring all options. Once he gets underneath the basket, Cunningham uses the rim as a shield and finishes the reverse lay-in. There have been instances where the defender doesn’t even contest the shot due to Cunningham’s ability to mask his intentions on the drive.

Cunningham’s play since January has all but silenced concerns surrounding him as an interior scoring threat. If there’s one area he needs to work on during the offseason it is his scoring between 4 and 14 feet — the “floater range.” Adding a reliable floater to his game could open up his offense in a major way, and based on his progress so far, I’d say he is capable of adding it to his arsenal.

Playmaking

Since entering the NBA, Cunningham’s playmaking ability has been obvious. Whether it’s making an advanced read in the pick-and-roll, whipping a skip pass to a corner shooter, or hitting a cutting teammate in stride, the rookie has playmaking skills beyond his years. Although the consistency wavered in the early months of the season, each game the rookie has suited up, he’s flashed the potential of, as Kevin Durant recently said, a “6-foot-7 point guard...that can wreck a whole defensive gameplan.”

In the month of March, Cunningham has put together his best stretch as a floor general, averaging 7.1 assists across 13 games. During this span, the rookie of the year candidate has strung together multiple double-digit assist games, with a pair of back-to-back 10-assist performances against the Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers.

At 6-foot-6, Cunningham is blessed with the height and vision to see over a defense. His processing capability allows for impeccable court mapping. With a less volatile handle, we’ve seen Cunningham adapt a shiftiness in pick-and-roll scenarios, keeping defenders constantly guessing as he wiggles between sudden stop and start motions.

The addition of Marvin Bagley III at the trade deadline has only further accentuated Cunningham’s ability to find scoring opportunities for his peers. Bagley’s ability to serve as a lob threat has unlocked a higher level of playmaking within Cunningham. The additional space has provided the rookie guard with a plethora of options when driving toward the hoop. With the defense having to account for Bagley’s vertical pop, Cunningham has shown the ability to either fire pinpoint skip passes to corner shooters, hit the roll man in stride, finish with a score of his own, or find Bagley for a thunderous dunk. In the 15 games they’ve played together, Cunningham has averaged 6.7 assists, up from 5.2 assists with Bagley not part of the lineup.

The turnovers are still high. And the three-ball seems to have fallen off in recent weeks. But, the stretch of play Cunningham has put together in his past 25 games, is only the beginning to the type of play Detroit fans will be treated to in future years.