It may have taken longer than many expected, but Cade Cunningham is finally starting to prove why he was the draft’s top pick in 2021.
Through 51 career games, the rookie is routinely putting together brilliant performances for a Detroit Pistons team in the middle of a rebuild. Keep in mind, it wasn’t long ago when Cunningham’s shooting struggles left some to wonder if he had the necessary upside to carry a franchise.
Cunningham’s Rookie of the Year argument might be too little, too late. But his ceiling continues to grow, leaving little doubt that the Pistons are in good hands.
Cade Cunningham has moved past his miserable start
Even in a loaded 2021 draft class, Cunningham was the consensus top pick. The Oklahoma State star was the obvious candidate to lead Detroit into its new era.
Cade made his NBA debut on Oct. 30, scoring two points on 1-of-8 shooting against the Orlando Magic. He wasn’t much better the next two games, shooting 2-of-14 against the Milwaukee Bucks and 4-of-17 against the Philadelphia 76ers. To make matters worse, the 6-foot-6 guard also made one out of 21 three-point attempts.
However, the lightbulb clicked soon after. On Nov. 25, Cunningham joined Stephen Curry, Trae Young, and Jason Kidd as the only rookies to register at least 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and five three-pointers in a game. By Dec. 2, he 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.
With just a few weeks left until his rookie year concludes, Cunningham is also discovering his clutch gene. The top pick scored 28 points against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter and overtime. He also finished the game with 10 assists, six rebounds, and a +11 plus-minus rating in Detroit’s 113-110 victory.
Cunningham is finally delivering on his high expectations
Being the top pick comes with certain expectations. Even at 20 years old, Cunningham was Detroit’s greatest hope at returning to NBA relevance after two forgettable playoff appearances in 12 seasons.
At 18-47, the Pistons aren’t going to be playing postseason basketball in 2021-22. But they have to feel good about their future being in Cunningham’s hands.
Despite as bad of a start as you can ask for, Cunningham’s season-long numbers are extremely solid. The 6-6 guard is averaging 16.5 points on 40.0% shooting from the field and 32.1% from three. They’re even better if you eliminate his first three duds, giving him an average of 17.0 points on 41.2% from the field and 34.1% from beyond the arc. He’s also averaging 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists for the year.
Cunningham’s best, however, has come over Detroit’s last few games. Since Feb. 16, Cunningham has scored anywhere between 17 and 28 points a night. He’s also doing so efficiently, shooting 40.0% or better in each of his last six games.
Best of all, Cunningham’s hot stretch is translating to the win column, with Detroit earning the W in six of its last eight contests.
The 20-year-old Cunningham was thrown into the fire and has emerged unscathed. At this rate, the sky is the limit for what the young star is capable of.
Cunningham should receive more Rookie of the Year recognition
For months, the NBA Rookie of the Year debate has revolved around the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley and Toronto Raptors’ Scottie Barnes. Very rarely did Cunningham find himself in the conversation.
While both Mobley and Barnes are arguably more deserving, Cunningham should at very least be a viable candidate.
Cade’s 28-10-6 stat line against the Hawks was his sixth 25-5-5 line of the season. For context, the rest of the rookie class has three 25-5-5 games combined. Additionally, he leads all rookies in points and ranks seconds in assists, fourth in rebounds, and fourth in steals.
He’s also one of just two rookies to earn a triple-double this season, with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey being the other.
Of course, there are a few areas Cunningham can improve. His defense leaves a lot to be desired, while his three-point shooting hasn’t entirely come around yet. But at 20 years old, it’s reasonable to think he’ll improve fairly quickly.
In all likelihood, Cunningham is going to finish no higher than third in ROTY voting. That said, his superstar ceiling might be the highest of anyone in the class.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.