Rookie seasons are typically learning experiences for young basketball players, especially if you are one of the first players selected. The best players will often end up on the worst teams, and it forces these young players, most of whom had winning pedigrees in high school and college, to adapt to frequently losing throughout an entire 82-game NBA season.
Count Detroit Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham among those who had to adjust to the rigors of the NBA. The Pistons made Cunningham the first overall pick of the 2021 NBA Draft and are hoping he will be the face of their next great team. For now, Cunningham and Detroit remain stuck at the bottom of the NBA standings, and it may be a while before that changes.
Losing takes a toll on professional athletes, especially when all they knew beforehand was winning and success. Cunningham quickly realized how important winning is in the NBA, and he recently discussed some things he learned along the way during his rookie year with the Pistons:
“I think the biggest thing I learned is that the League, the media, nobody will care until you’re winning. I could feel bad for myself all I want about [how] people didn’t respect or appreciate the season I had, or anything, but I didn’t win a lot of games. So, I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve locked in on and I decided within. I have to win games if I want people to respect my name, and if not, then I can’t be mad at people not watching enough games and how I really play. That’s the challenge that I’ve tried to take on. I’ve talked to teammates [and] we’re all trying to take that challenge on. I think that’s the next step for us.” - Cade Cunningham, SLAM.
Does Cunningham have a point that winning earns you respect in the NBA?
While winning is not the sole determinant of success in the NBA, it’s a big part of the equation. If you can’t lead your team to victory or take control of games on your own, you aren’t viewed as part of that upper echelon of players, and that’s how it goes. Cunningham realized that no matter what he does individually in Detroit, it won’t garner attention unless he leads them to wins.
Take the 2022 Rookie of the Year results as an example. Scottie Barnes ended up winning the award, partly because of the role he played in the Toronto Raptors’ success on the season. Evan Mobley finished second because he helped the Cleveland Cavaliers unexpectedly reach the Play-In Tournament.
Cunningham got third place, even though, on paper, you can argue his stats are better than those of Barnes and Mobley. Cunningham did a little bit of everything to try and help Detroit win games; the problem is it didn’t always lead to wins. Folks around the NBA took notice of Barnes and Mobley’s play because they were helping their team win, and Cunningham will have to start winning games if he wants to take the next step forward.
Cunningham needs to be the leader of the Pistons’ rebuild
Now again, it’s worth noting the Pistons were in a much worse spot than both the Cavs and Raptors were when these guys joined their respective teams, and that’s still the case as we head towards the 2022 offseason. But Cunningham will have to be responsible for Detroit’s improved play moving forward, and he understands that.
The Pistons have some talent on their roster alongside Cunningham, with Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey both being solid from time to time, but that’s about it. Detroit has the fifth overall pick in the 2022 draft, which should help them bring in another top-tier talent who could immediately come in and slot into the Pistons’ starting lineup.
But this will have to be Cunningham’s team soon, if not next season. That’s the weight of being the first pick of any draft, and Cunningham realized that quickly in his rookie season. It’s not entirely on Cunningham’s shoulders, but he will have to step up and be the leader of his team. And until he does, Cunningham probably won’t get the recognition he may feel he deserves.