Cade Cunningham isn’t playing like the No. 1 overall pick at the moment, but the Pistons need to exercise patience with their talented rookie.
It’s natural for Detroit Pistons fans to be frustrated with Cade Cunningham’s early-season struggles. Detroit drafted him to be the cornerstone of their rebuild. Instead of looking like the franchise savior, he’s been a strong contributor to their ugly 3-10 start.
In fairness to the former Oklahoma State star, he’s only played in eight of his team’s first 13 contests. Missing time right out of the gate is one reason why patience is the right course of action for Dwane Casey and his coaching staff. There are plenty of other reasons why Cunningham’s future still looks bright in the Motor City.
Cunningham’s biggest struggle at the moment is directly tied to his jump shooting. Interestingly, his ability to really stroke the ball from all over the floor was arguably one of his biggest strengths coming into the 2021 Draft. Cunningham shot 40 percent from 3 during his one collegiate season but is only shooting 27.6 percent to start his professional career.
It’s reasonable to expect his shooting performance to normalize as he gets more reps at the NBA level. Yes, there’s a difference in distance between the professional and collegiate 3-point line, but it’s not drastic enough to explain such a stark difference in his performance. It’s very likely that Cunningham’s struggles from 3 are more a product of a small sample size than any sort of issue that’s going to plague him throughout his career.
If Cunningham can force opponents to close out hard on his perimeter jump shot it’s going to do wonders to open up the rest of his game. In particular, getting to the line more would really improve his offensive efficiency. Cunningham is only averaging 1.8 free throws per night but he’s connecting on 92.9 percent of his attempts. If he can start to drive past defenders who are flying out on him to stop him from taking a perimeter shot it’s going to really improve his stat line.
Cade Cunningham will look better as the Pistons add talent
The Pistons organization also needs to acknowledge their failure to surround Cunningham with the sort of talent that can ease his transition to being a No. 1 option in the NBA. Playing next to Killian Hayes in the starting backcourt is a serious problem. Hayes turns the ball over far too often and lacks the quickness to threaten defenders off the bounce. Combine that with his lack of willingness to shoot 3-pointers and it’s easy to see why Cunningham is struggling to find space on the perimeter.
Saddiq Bey does give Cunningham a boost with his willingness and ability to shoot the ball from deep, but the Pistons’ starting frontcourt duo of Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart does nothing to open up options for the talented rookie. In theory, Stewart should be able to serve as a quality screener on pick-and-roll options for Cunningham but that’s not something Detroit’s felt comfortable working into their offense this early in the year. Grant can also serve as a quality pick-and-roll partner in a vacuum, but Stewart’s lack of complimentary offensive game compounds the team’s spacing issue while employing that tactic.
Nothing is more important to the Pistons’ current season than helping Cunningham reach his full potential as quickly as possible. Any dreams the Detroit front office had of working their way into playoff contention this season were always foolish. That’s arguably the biggest reason why the Pistons have to give Cunningham all the room he requires to learn on the job. If Detroit wants to even consider making noise in the Eastern Conference next season they need Cunningham to be playing at something approaching an All-Star level. The only chance of him progressing to that level is if the Pistons keep feeding him and living with the erratic results this season.