An 82-game season is equally maddening and incredible simultaneously. On one hand, it's just way too many games, and it's overly demanding with respect to travel, time and fatigue. On the other hand, it's a remarkable sample size and tool for evaluation and understanding. My friends who don't love basketball don't understand my desire to watch a conference powerhouse beat down on a lottery team on Tuesday nights, and ya know what? Sometimes I don't either!
When watching Cade Cunningham drag the Pistons to a closely-contested loss to the Denver Nuggets and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic on Sunday night, I had this thought ring out in the back of my head.
Yeah, this is why man.
Watching Cunningham this year has been a treat like no other. While many rookies have flashed their potential and made strides (some even impacting winning at a high level early), I'm not sure we've seen someone this season adapt to the NBA and assert himself as quickly as the No. 1 overall pick.
Many have a case, but given team context and environment along with what's asked of him, it's gotta be Cade.
Watching him evolve and adapt his game in real time over the past few months has been semi-akin to watching a superhero transformation. The questions pre-draft about Cunningham's relative lack of burst given primary ball-handling duties were fair, but undersold his problem-solving. Growing, adapting, evolving; it's what Cade Cunningham does. (Shoutout to PD Web for this scout.)
Late in his prep career, Cunningham was an elite prospect, but significant questions were posed about his shooting prowess and capabilities beyond the arc. He eviscerated defenses from the perimeter during his solo season in Stillwater, hitting 40.0% of his 5.7 threes per game with a high volume of self-created shots off the dribble. Yet another part of his development plan and preparation.
In spite of his struggles from deep early, Cunningham consistently kept getting his shots up without hesitation, an important part of keeping the defense honest. The rookie was tested in the NBA early, as defenses openly challenged him to shoot, choosing to go under on ball-screens he operated from. After adjusting to pro spacing, length and contests, Cade made it known; you just can't go under.
Cade is already making it known that you indeed cannot go under on ballscreens against him pic.twitter.com/42oQeFbwBW— Mark Schindler (@MSchindlerNBA) November 16, 2021
After finding his range and the defense willfully bending to his ability, Cunningham has moved into his next stage, probing the defense and pressuring the paint.
While I would be careful to not extrapolate his ridiculous leap of efficiency at the rim over the past month, it stands that his process has shifted, and he's finding new ways to capitalize in the paint. As he's gotten more accustomed to his surroundings, his pacing and guile with the ball in his hands have led to this jump as a finisher on the interior.
Cunningham's awareness of the court, mapping of defenders and understanding of angles make him an elite manipulator. However, it's his self-awareness that continually stands out the most. He is flourishing because he knows what he's best at, what he needs to get to and how to make it happen.
Given how well he's shooting (currently 57.7% on pull-up threes in January... yes, you read that right), defenses have started to adjust their pressure on ball-screens, often playing bigs involved in the screen close to the level while his man-defender goes over top of the screen. He's not hitting at an elite percentage on pull-up twos (38.7% per InStat), but he's shooting well enough and with confidence in a way that forces the defense to still pay attention to his actions.
But, it's less about the jumper-hitting and more about the threat of it for Cunningham.
His bread and butter as a driver and handler is his flexibility. He's incredibly shifty despite elite burst, phenomenal at utilizing shoulder and head fakes, and using hesitation dribbles and stutters in his drives to force defenders to play at his pace.
Cunningham has a knack for using his screener to set up the big, almost rocking the defense to sleep in a sense. He flows into his hesitations and hang dribbles to lull the big and his defender into thinking he's going to do the opposite of what he actually will.
The second a big starts to rotate back to the screener, Cade will flash baseline.
If he has the big on a drive, he'll tango with them and create the impression that he's going to rise for a jumper rather than challenge a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, in this case with Rudy Gobert.
Nope, guessed wrong! There goes Cunningham probing baseline, finding a quick reverse after using the rim as an obstacle to avoid a late contest.
However, he can get into some issues right now considering how heavily his game is based on deception and craft. If the defender doesn't bite, or if Cade sees extra help from the corner or at the nail, it can congest his handle and make it difficult for him to set things up the way he likes to.
Given that he's not a great leaper and still needs to develop as a contact-finisher, this is one of the larger hurdles Cunningham faces as an at-rim finisher.
However, he's already showing flashes of how he's going to adapt to that, because that's just what he does! He's showing real intrigue as a self-creator even when guarded well 1-on-1.
Cunningham's off-arm craft is incredible and very advanced for his age. (If it looks like something Chris Paul would do to toe the line of league legality, you're doing special stuff as an offensive player.)
Tapping into the footwork he flashes along with his timing and that understanding of angles we mentioned earlier, poor Rudy Gay found out about Cunningham the hard way. Deandre Ayton was contesting in six different directions as Cade whipped out his version of the Ali Shuffle.
These aren't the shots a player can live off of, but they're the kind of shots that make a player a star. If anything has become abundantly clear from this Pistons season, it's of the impending emergence of Cunningham's stardom.
While this season has assuredly been a slog for Detroit, do yourself a favor; make time for Cade Cunningham once a week, and soak in the rays of exceptional development and problem-solving in real time.
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