All the draft analysts had Cade Cunningham as the no.1 pick before the 2021 Draft. Given the fact he started the season injured, and then had a slow start, a lot of people started wondering whether he will be yet another underwhelming no.1 pick. Particularly given the fact Evan Mobley seems to turn the Cavs into a Finals contender whenever he’s on the court. After their first matchup last night, Cunningham’s answer to the Mobley comparisons demonstrated one of the main reasons everyone had as the best prospect in his class.
Cade Cunningham has most often been described as a player without a flaw, a guy that does everything well - pass, dribble, shoot, defend, rebound. You name it; Cade can do it. But when you’re looking for a no.1 pick, you want a lot of upside and at least several elite skills - stuff you can project to become a “pick your poison” situation in a playoff setting. At first glance, it’s hard to name are those when it comes to Cunningham.
More and more, it seems it’s not that Cade doesn’t have any, but that his elite skills don’t make the highlight reels and require more time and nuance. One of those qualities is maturity. Anyone who spent any time around him does not fail to point out Cunnigam is extremely mature - a quality that’s mandatory for a great leader. Last night, Cade was asked about Mobley getting a lot of “he should’ve been the no.1 pick” narrative, and demonstrated why the Givonys and Schmidtzs of the world loved him as the no.1 pick.
This attitude and mindset explain Cade’s ability to have the game he head yesterday. Similar to this season, actually, Cunnigham started slow - the Cavs got a 15-0 lead at the beginning of the game, and the Pistons took their first lead in the fourth quarter. But that didn’t phase Cunningham much. He finished the game with an 18/10/10 triple-double, including a stepback three over Rondo to seal the deal.
Sadiq Bey led the Pistons in scoring with 31 points, but Cunnigham’s all-around performance was the glue that held the team together. “I can’t let myself be a prisoner to whatever happens in the first half,” Cade said after the game, and he proved it on the court.
Don’t get me wrong, Cade has the potential to be elite in several different areas of the game - the “pick your poison” guy I talked about. But guys like Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs seemed more like the prototype of a player who can take over games in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. That’s because most people think dunks and long-range bombs are the only way you can really do that.
When you hear a guy’s most impressive skills coming into the NBA are leadership and maturity, that doesn’t sound like a description of a no.1 draft pick. But ask any NBA GM would they spend the no.1 pick on the next Draymond Green, and you’ll get a unanimous “yes.” I’m not saying they have the same skillset. Cade’s effect on his team is comparable to Draymond’s - when he’s on the court, everyone becomes better, and their life becomes a bit easier.
Everyone is talking about Steph’s shooting struggles, but the main reason they are underwhelming lately is on the injury report. Cunningham will be the same kind of player. He won’t jump off the screen every time he plays, but you’ll definitely notice when he’s not there.
Mobley may turn out to be the next Kevin Garnett, as Bill Simmons talked about early in the season. But even if that happens, the Pistons won’t lose sleep over it. They found a guy with one of the most underappreciated skills in the NBA.