Cade Cunningham Has Overcome His Horrendous Start to Join Larry Bird and LeBron James in an Exclusive Club

The Detroit Pistons received a much-needed gift in Cade Cunningham, but early returns suggested otherwise.

The first overall pick of the 2021 NBA Draft began his career looking nowhere near the potential franchise-changing player he was projected to be. But with close to 20 games now under his belt, Cunningham has managed to place himself amongst an elite group of NBA greats in a highly-exclusive club.

Cade Cunningham had a nightmarish start to his NBA career

After commissioner Adam Silver announced Detroit’s selection of Cunningham, it didn’t take before people started to make Hall of Fame comparisons. But an early injury mixed with horrid shooting drastically tempered expectations.

The 6-foot-6 point guard missed the entirety of Detroit’s preseason with a sprained ankle. The injury carried over into the regular season, leaving the top pick on the shelf for another four games. Finally, on October 30, Cunningham made his NBA debut at home against the Orlando Magic. Although his debut performance wasn’t exactly how he wanted to announce himself to the world, scoring just two points on 1-of-8 shooting.

Three nights later, Cunningham looked even worse. The 20-year-old was helpless against the Milwaukee Bucks, scoring a grand total of six points on 2-of-14 shooting. The next game saw the rookie drop 18 points but go only 4-of-17 from the field.

Through three games, Detroit’s future savior shot a dismal 17.9% from the field. It just so happens to be the worst field-goal percentage in the first three games of a player’s career with at least 30 attempts since the merger in 1976. To make matters worse, he also went a laughably bad 1-of-21 from beyond the arc.

Cunningham has finally been as good as advertised

Thoughts of Darko Milicic undoubtedly crept into the minds of Pistons fans when watching their rookie struggle. Thankfully, Cunningham has put those fears to rest.

In his fifth career game, Cade registered 20 points on 44.4% shooting, his first time eclipsing the 40% mark. He would go on to break the 40% barrier in four of the next five games, including in a breakthrough 25-point, eight-rebound, and eight-assist performance against the Sacramento Kings.

After a brief stretch which included his first career triple-double, Cunningham has looked like a star in the making over Detroit’s most recent three-game run. In a close loss against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pistons rookie scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. Two nights later against the Portland Trail Blazers, he scored a career-high 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting, which included a 5-of-7 clip from three. Cade then converted three more triples as part of a 19-point effort against the Phoenix Suns.

Excluding his first three games, Cunningham is averaging 15.3 points on 40.8% shooting. He’s also filling up the stat sheet with averages of 6.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.4 steals.

The Detroit Pistons star has joined an elite club


Forget Trae Young vs. Luka Dončić; Rookie Standouts Jalen Green and Cade Cunningham Teeing up a Decade-Defining NBA Rivalry

Cunningham’s first breakout game against the Kings placed him in rare company. The 6-6 guard joined Stephen Curry, Trae Young, and Jason Kidd as the only rookies to register at least 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and five 3-pointers in a game.

Now, Cade is putting himself in an even better group. One that features some of the NBA’s greatest players of all time.

According to Elias Sports, the 20-year-old Cunningham joined LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Alvan Adams, and Ben Simmons as the only players in NBA history with at least 240 points, 100 rebounds, 75 assists, 20 steals, and 10 blocks through 17 career games. That group alone features three Hall of Famers in Magic, Bird, and Dr. J, a future Hall of Famer in LeBron, and two All-Stars in Adams and Simmons.

If nothing else, earning a place in that group shows the All-Star potential within Cunningham. Especially given how his season started, shooting worse than anyone ever has through three games. But it’s clear to see the sky’s the limit for the potential Rookie of the Year, a positive sign for the rebuilding Pistons.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.