NBA Draft Lottery: The Detroit Pistons Won the No. 1 Pick. Will Cade Cunningham Fit In?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images. Pictured: Cade Cunningham #2 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
The 2021 NBA Draft Lottery is officially in the books, and the Detroit Pistons are the big winners.
Detroit finished with the second-worst record in the NBA and came into the lottery tied with the Rockets and Magic for the best odds to win the No. 1 pick in the new flattened lottery, and this time the numbers held up. The Pistons will select first in the draft for the first time since 1970, when they took Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier to man the middle.
Now, with another No. 1 pick, you can count on the Pistons keeping and making that selection. And by all accounts, that should mean Oklahoma State point guard Cade Cunningham is headed to the Motor City.
So what will Cade Cunningham look like in the NBA? How will his role shape up in Detroit, and what impact will his presence have on the rest of the roster?
We’ve already done a deep-dive preview of Cade Cunningham as a draft prospect, so be sure to check that out if you missed it. Now let’s look at the Cunningham effect in Detroit.
Are We Sure Detroit Will Draft Cade Cunningham?
About as sure as we could be, yes.
Cunningham has long been considered the top prospect in the draft, and though the Pistons have a number of interesting young pieces, the team has not had a true franchise player for some time.
Pistons General Manager Troy Weaver blew up the team over the past year, tearing down the roster and essentially starting over. He brought in Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee as free agents, moved on from Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, and brought in a trio of first-round rookies in Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, and Saddiq Bey.
The Pistons need more handling, more shooting, more size, and more creation. Bey and Stewart look like rotation players, and Hayes had a bit of a lost rookie season, but none of them look like a true franchise player right now. Grant can hold down the fort for now, but he’s on another timeline.
This will be Cunningham’s show now.
He should be the top pick, and step into a significant starting role from day one. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is already reporting that Cunningham will visit only the Pistons leading up to the draft.
Sources: The plan for presumptive No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham will be to visit only one team prior to the NBA Draft on July 29: The Detroit Pistons.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 23, 2021
Detroit has its man.
What’ Cunningham’s Role in the NBA?
Cunningham can do a little bit of everything. He’s 6-foot-8 with outstanding positional size and instincts, elite passing ability, huge defensive upside, and a good-looking shot. By all accounts, he looks like a big lead initiator and the engine of an NBA offense.
If you’re an old-school Pistons fan who loves throwback comparisons, imagine a modern-day Grant Hill: a do-everything player with size who can score, create, and defend.
That combination is more commonplace in today’s NBA (LeBron James and Luka Doncic come to mind), but Hill was one of a kind, and he’s an interesting progenitor for the sort of player Cunningham might one day become.
Cunningham is a point guard, in the same way that Doncic or Ben Simmons are point guards. In the increasingly position-less NBA, role matters more than position. Expect Cunningham to be the guy initiating the offense but also utilize his size to guard three or four positions on defense.
As the NBA continues to evolve, perhaps that will eventually mean Cunningham is not a point guard but a wing, or maybe even a forward in some team constructs. His size and natural instincts give him terrific defensive upside, and he’s a skilled player with a high floor and should slot into a starting lineup as a useful NBA player right away.
Cunningham will be a heavy favorite to win 2022 Rookie of the Year. He should be one of the team’s leading scorers immediately, and there’s little reason to think he won’t play major minutes right away.
Cunningham is not Simmons. He does have some of the frustrating passiveness at times, though that’s tough to interpret over a handful of college games, and he probably won’t be quite the defender Simmons is, since few are.
But most importantly, Cunningham differs from Simmons because he can shoot. His shot was a question mark coming into the season at Oklahoma State, but he hit 40% of his 3s and 84.6% of his free throws and looked more than confident and willing to shoot a pull-up jumper or hit the 3.
Cade Cunningham showed exactly why he’s been the projected #1 pick all season. Gets to his pull-up at will, physical to the rim at 6-8, can operate out of the post. We haven’t even seen arguably his best skill (passing) on full display yet. Film session: https://t.co/2odWDqvGG3 pic.twitter.com/ymZAnb4PGC
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) February 27, 2021
That is a huge added value since it raises Cunningham’s floor significantly. Cade isn’t an elite athlete, by NBA measures: He doesn’t have elite burst, and his handle will need some tightening.
He consistently had trouble turning the corner on defenders and getting to the rim, which could limit him some as a scorer. It might mean that he has to play off the ball at times, though he was cramped by a lack of spacing in college.
For Simmons, playing off the ball is devastating to his value. But since Cunningham looks like a useful shooter, he should always have value on an NBA court, with or without the ball. He can provide spacing and gravity even without the ball, and his size may allow him to play either end of the pick-and-roll, both on offense and defense.
In a league that values versatile wings who can switch, Cunningham is a slam dunk addition to any NBA roster. Perhaps one of his biggest strengths is the lack of any huge weakness.
What about the Rest of the Pistons Roster?
The NBA Lottery always has a cascade of effects that impact many teams outside of those that end up in the top four.
But in this case, you can pretty much just slot Cunningham into Detroit’s lineup without expecting many big, immediate changes. Because he can play on or off the ball, and since that’s the hope for second-year guard Killian Hayes too, you can bank on Detroit playing Cunningham and Hayes together early and often.
The Pistons have plenty of forward and big man options. Jerami Grant was a Most Improved Player candidate, and Mason Plumlee is a starting level center. Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey were among the five or six most impressive rookies in the league, and both look like clear rotation players. And don’t forget about Sekou Doumbouya as he enters the third year of what was expected to be a long developmental curve.
What the Pistons didn’t have much of was guard play. Veterans Delon Wright and Wayne Ellington were among the team leaders in guard minutes, each barely over 1000, while youngsters Saben Lee and Frank Jackson struggled to prove themselves.
The most likely long-term guard on the roster is Hayes, who struggled immensely as a rookie. But he’s still young and, like Doumbouya, was expected to have a long developmental curve as a young international prospect.
The Pistons have themselves a future.
— Brandon Anderson (@wheatonbrando) June 23, 2021
Cunningham is ready right away and maybe eve more ready than Hayes and Doumbouya right now. And with Cunningham, Hayes, Bey, Doumbouya, and Stewart, Detroit has a young core that fits well together with defensive potential, length and the ability to switch.
This feels like the beginning of what could be a very good blue collar Pistons team built around its defense, just the way Detroit fans like it.
The addition of Cunningham shouldn’t have major immediate ripple effects on the Pistons roster. Grant will still feature as the team’s leading scorer and potential All-Star candidate.
The Pistons probably won’t be very good in the 2021-22 NBA season. Teams typically struggle with young lead handlers, and Detroit will probably turn most of its offense over to Cunningham and Hayes.
And that’s perfectly fine. This Pistons core is years away from even beginning to peak, but now Detroit fans get to peek at the future. And all the better if the team flashes potential again next year while losing enough to secure another high lottery pick to add to the core going forward.