NBA Rookie of the Year: Cade Cunningham Failed to Impress Enough vs. Evan Mobley

Cade Cunningham likely won’t be the NBA’s Rookie of The Year. If that wasn’t clear before the Detroit Pistons matched up with presumptive favorite Evan Mobley and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the last time in the 2021-22 season, it was after.

The Cavs walked away with a 113-109 win, and while both players were impressive enough, Cunningham ultimately wasn’t good enough to outshine the player who went two picks behind him in the 2021 NBA Draft.

Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley both secured a double-double in their final head-to-head

It was a game that was meaningful for both teams but in vastly different ways. The Cavaliers needed to beat the scrappy Pistons to maintain their hold on the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. On the other hand, Detroit needed and needs to keep competitively losing games to secure one more top pick to go alongside Cunningham moving into the future.

The competitive tank rolled on for the Pistons as they took another solid team down to the wire. In a matchup that featured the No. 1 overall pick, Cunningham, and the No. 3 overall in Mobley, it was two veterans who made the most noise on Saturday night, though

For the Pistons, it was Jeremy Grant, who was hot all night from downtown and finished with 40 points on 7-of-9 shooting from three-point range. All-Star guard Darius Garland led the way for the Cavaliers with 24, including seven in the fourth.

That’s not to say the rookies didn’t flash.

Cunningham finished with 15 points and 10 assists. He was inefficient and rusty coming off a two-game absence due to illness, but he still secured his 10th double-double of the season, showing his high upside in that even when he has an “off” night, he can still fill up a stat sheet.

Speaking of double-doubles, Mobley notched his 20th of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Pistons. The 6-foot-11, 215-pound big man played well in the paint without the ball and also showed off some great play-making with six assists.

Cunningham’s slow start is hurting him

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons plays against the Cleveland Cavaliers | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This is not to take anything away from Cunningham. The Pistons are clearly ecstatic about the player and leader he is and will become, and it’s hard to argue with his results when he’s playing well. In fact, the game against Cleveland snapped a seven-game streak that saw Cunningham score 20-plus points for the Pistons.

Even with the subpar performance against Cleveland, he’s averaging 22.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in March. Mobley isn’t that far behind, averaging 17.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in March, but Cunningham has clearly been the better player as of late.

Unfortunately for Cunningham and the success-hungry Pistons, it may be a case of too little too late regarding the Rookie of the Year race. It seems like forever ago at this point, but Mobley got a significant leg up on the No. 1 overall pick over the first few weeks of the season while Cunningham watched from the bench with an ankle injury.

Cunningham’s case was hurt even more by his terrible start once he did see the court. It took him some time to adjust both to the NBA game as well as to his shooting touch coming off the ankle injury. In the meantime, Mobley quickly thrived with the Cavs.

For comparison’s sake consider the following: Cunnigham shot 36.9% from the field in November and 28.6% from downtown. His numbers in March are likely much closer to what he’ll be over the course of his NBA career: 44.3% from the field and 34.9% from three-point range.

Cunningham has undoubtedly improved, and he’s been the best rookie in basketball over the past few weeks. His slow start will hurt him, though.

He also didn’t help his case with his so-so showing against Mobley and the Cavs on Saturday night.

Rookie of the Year won’t define either Cunningham or Mobley

Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley
Evan Mobley #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots over Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons | Jason Miller/Getty Images

It’s a nice trophy to put on the shelf and it certainly looks good on a resume, but neither Cunningham nor Mobley will be defined by the other raising the Rookie of the Year trophy at the end of the season.

Cunningham, specifically, was drafted to be the leader and centerpiece of a young team aspiring to be champions. His points per game are just as important as how he holds himself during games for the Pistons. He’s the organization’s leader on and off the court, and he’s proven throughout the course of the season that he’s everything Detroit needs him to be.

He just needs to work on consistency, and that will come in time.

Mobley has it a bit easier in Cleveland with players like Garland (and eventually) Colin Sexton around him. The Cavs were a fully formed playoff team before drafting him and they’re hoping that he’ll be the piece who can ultimately put them over the top—perhaps not this season, but in the next year or two.

Detroit is in a much different place with its rebuild.

Drafting Cunningham was the first real glimmer of hope the organization has had in years. The Pistons are now hoping that second-year players like Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart (and to a lesser extent, Killian Hayes) can grow alongside of him, but they’re still deep in the rebuilding process and still a bit away from being truly competitive.

That’s not to say the Pistons don’t have hope, though, and in fact, they’re deriving some from the Cavs’ quick rebuild.

“It gives you belief,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the loss to the Cavs, specifically talking about Cleveland’s rebuild as it relates to his young players, according to Keith Langlois. “We’ve got to make smart decisions as an organization. We’ve got to make the right decisions to add the right pieces that fit this group. Troy’s done a great job of putting this core together. Now we’ve got to add the right pieces.”

The most important piece for Detroit was Cunningham, and Rookie of the Year or not; he’s still the centerpiece moving forward.

Stats courtesy of ESPN and Pro Football Reference. Contract information via Spotrac

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