Cade Cunningham Shoots His Shot at Rookie of the Year Going Toe-to-Toe With Kevin Durant

The Detroit Pistons are currently one of the worst teams in the NBA, so it’s no surprise that they lost to Kevin Durant and a Brooklyn Nets team fighting for its playoff life. What may have surprised some, though, is that Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham looked right at home going toe-to-toe with Durant, arguably the greatest basketball player in the world.

Whether Detroit’s No. 1 overall pick wins the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award is ultimatly inconsequential in the grand scheme of his career as well as Detroit’s rebuild. Still, Cunningham has been making a strong case for the award over the past few weeks and he may have made his biggest statement yet against the Nets.

Cade Cunningham scored 29 points in the second half against Brooklyn while injured

Cunningham dropped 34 points against Brooklyn, with 29 of those points coming in the second half as the Nets were trying to pull away.

Every time Durant would flash his otherwordly ability and hit an effortless shot, especially in the fourth quarter, Cunningham would answer.

Durant finished the game with 41 points on 14-of-23 shooting from the field, and he was extremely impressive and smooth from downtown, hitting four of six attempts. His field goal percentage was 60.9% on the night.

Cunningham wasn’t as efficient (13-of-24 from the field, 5-of-11, from three-point-range), which is something he’ll need to improve in year two. He also has struggled getting to the charity stripe, which was glaring in comparison to the superstar whistles that Durant got. 

Still, those facts almost make it more impressive that Cunningham was able to do what he did against Brooklyn, and that’s not even considering the fact that Durant was playing defense on him for much of the fourth quarter.

The rookie went toe-to-toe with Durant as the 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA Finals MVP tried to use his length and superior athleticism to put the Pistons away.

Every time the Nets tried to pull away in the fourth, Cunningham found a way to answer. He hit six of his eight shots in the fourth quarter, including two threes, one of which was basically from the logo.

Perhaps most impressive? Cunningham did it all while hurt. He suffered a lower back injury in the late first quarter and sat out most of the second.  

“He’s a warrior,” Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart said after the game, according to the Detroit News. “He fought through the back injury.”

Cunningham has been playing like a Rookie of the Year for the Detroit Pistons

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against the Washington Wizards | Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The month of March has shown the NBA world what Cunningham is capable of now that he’s finally settled into the league and has figured out how to utilize his strengths and the players around him.

He’s averaged 22.5 points, 7.1 assists, and 6.2 rebounds over the past 13 games. His scoring output has significantly increased as he’s grown into his role and realized that when he’s on, he’s almost unstoppable due to his ability to maneuver to the basket while also being a suitable threat from three-point range. To that point, consider the fact that Cunningham’s best month to this point was 17.9 points per game average in the month of December, which is still impressive for a rookie. He’s roughly five points per game better just a few months later.

He’s only getting better as he gets more confident, and looking like an equal against the likes of Durant and Kyrie Irving on Tuesday should only increase his moxie and gravity as a player.

After the game, both Durant and Irving took time to encourage the rising superstar.

“They told me, ‘Stay healthy. Keep working.’… It’s all love and respect at the end of the game,” he relayed.

Cunningham’s head coach, Dwayne Casey, sang the young guard’s praises and once again made his case for Rookie of the Year.

“Pound for pound, talent for talent, Cade is that guy,” Casey said. “He showed it against the best team in the East. He’s got ‘it.'”

The Pistons got their guy in Cunningham

Cade Cunningham
Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons talks with his teammates in a huddle before the game against the Washington Wizards | Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Even if Cunningham doesn’t ultimatly win Rookie of the Year, you’d have to think that general manager Troy Weaver would pick Cunningham every time in any hypothetical re-draft situations.

Not only is he coming into his own as a superstar, but Cunningham has proven to be a leader on and off the court. He’s already the face of the franchise, but he’s also only scratched the surface of his potential.

Ultimatly, Cleveland’s Evan Mobley (the No. 3 pick) may win the award for the important role he’s been playing for a playoff team. He’s averaging 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game and has tremendous upside at 6-foot-11, 215-pounds with great athleticism and a soft touch. Toronto’s Scottie Barnes (the No. 4 overall pick) should also get a look at the award. He’s averaging 15.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, and like Cunningham, he’s projecting to be one of the best all-around players in the league in no time.

Still, neither player has had to carry their team as Cunningham has.

Neither has had the expectations of a whole city placed on their shoulders.

While both tremendous rookies, neither Mobley nor Barnes has stepped on a court with the likes of Kevin Durant and immediately came across as an equal.

Casey said that Cunningham has the “it” factor. Cunningham, more mature than his years, said he’s just trying to get his team the win.

“Not everybody who’s super talented does that. I try to put my team first. I don’t know what he means by ‘it,’ but I think my game speaks for itself,” he said. 

Cunningham is right; his game does speak for itself, and it spoke volumes against Brooklyn. 

Stats courtesy of ESPN.

RELATED: Cade Cunningham Shows an Important Sense of Humility Amid Tumultuous Rookie Season