25-under-25, Detroit Pistons

Cade Cunningham is an instant classic

The game of Cade Cunningham is both classic and something entirely his own. As the Pistons’ roster improves so do the possibilities for him.

Cade Cunningham’s name rolls off the tongue like a Sunday morning comic strip your great-grandparents might have read, and there is something old about his game.

Cunningham branches from the James Harden tree by way of Luka Dončić, meaning he doesn’t make buckets by blowing by a defender or leaping over tall buildings. He diverts. He changes direction. He engineers his pace and control. More Owens River than the uncontrollable rage and ruin of the Mississippi. Cunningham leaves all that to his high school running mate Scottie Barnes.

But Cunningham was drafted number one overall in 2021 by the Detroit Pistons, which means the weight of expectations on his shoulders is a bit more than what Toronto heaped on Barnes. And neither Luka nor Harden went that high either. In fact, the paths carved in the limestone by those other two guards are probably the primary reason Cunningham’s draft stock rose as high as it did. Front offices didn’t just recognize something grand about his game — they recognized the what-if and possibility conjured by those earlier anecdotes. No more Hasheem Thabeets, not in 2021.

But the path forward remains somewhat unclear for Cunningham. The rock is stubborn. While his rookie year’s production tops Harden’s, one wonders if that edge has as much to do with having teammates named Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green. The Oklahoma City Thunder drafted a destiny before trading it away. Cade Cunningham is something of a kitchen sink in the midst of a desert.

Luka, on the other hand, is a hundred-year flood. What separates Cunningham most from his source material is his shooting touch. His percentages lag behind both Harden’s and Luka’s, but seasons change and so does the weather.

What can Cade Cunningham do as the talent around him increases?

Maybe Bojan Bogdanovic is a torrential downpour. Maybe Cunningham’s added muscle lightens the load. Perhaps Isaiah Stewart or Saddiq Bey makes a daunting leap. Marvin Bagley III is hanging around. And Jaden Ivey might possibly be his own reservoir. Who knows what could be this winter?

The season is likely to bear Cunningham moving more off ball and, if the shooters make their shots, digging into the post more where he should be able to take advantage of smaller guards in much the same way as players of his stature always have. That flexibility should it happen would stand as proof for general manager Troy Weaver’s take on the team’s updated roster:

“I feel like we finally have a full complement of players. The first two years, we didn’t. It’s my job to make sure we have a roster in place that can come out and compete. I feel like we have a full complement of players, so we can go out and compete now. We’ll be short in experience in some areas, but I’m excited about the roster and where we are.”

But all that begins and ends with Cunningham. And what Cunningham provides for a proud franchise that hasn’t ventured outside the first round since before Barack Obama was sworn into office is a sense of hope.

And yet these are cynical times for a reason. Change is hard to come by. Everyone is a little bit at fault for one reason or another.  Momentum can be fickle. The Owens River runs dry. Wars, decades, and development pass in the blink of an eye, and yet the old guard is always present, no longer a boy with a finger in the dam but Old Man River knocking at your door. Everything is cyclical, but some years a draft pick doesn’t go as far as it once did. You just don’t know what year that is until you’re looking for Cade Cunningham in the funny papers and telling your grandchildren, “remember when.”

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