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The Rookie Curve: Cade Cunningham Can Fill Many Roles, but Should He?

The no. 1 overall pick is at his best with the ball in his hands, but how much the Pistons put him at the point will have a direct impact on the development of their 2020 lottery pick

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Paths to NBA stardom are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will examine some of the 2021 draft’s top talents and how their team’s situation will affect their freshman season.

Cade Cunningham played more off the ball in summer league than in college, often leaving the point guard duties to Killian Hayes, the no. 7 pick in 2020. Cunningham can succeed in multiple roles on offense—he’s a point forward with a high basketball IQ and an excellent 3-point shot. But just because he can do a bunch of different things on the court doesn’t mean that he should.

Cunningham’s role was a much simpler decision in college. Oklahoma State had missed the NCAA tournament in its previous three seasons, and didn’t have another top-50 recruit on its roster. Everything was built around Cade, who dominated the ball and averaged 20.1 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. With a rare combination of size (6-foot-7 and 215 pounds) and skill, he was both the Cowboys’ primary scorer and playmaker.

His upside is obvious. The best players in the game, from LeBron James to Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic, can be the alpha and omega of their offenses. There’s just no guarantee that Cade can reach their level as an elite passer and scorer. He was good at OSU, but he wasn’t that good. The biggest red flag was his poor 2-point field goal percentage. He did not score at will against overmatched competition like most perimeter players who go no. 1 overall:

Recent Perimeter Players to Go No. 1

Player Draft Year College 2PA College 2P%
Player Draft Year College 2PA College 2P%
Ben Simmons 2016 11.6 56.1
Anthony Edwards 2020 8.1 50.4
Markelle Fultz 2017 12.5 50.2
Andrew Wiggins 2014 8.5 49.3
Cade Cunningham 2021 9.1 46.1

The difference is athleticism. Cade doesn’t have the explosiveness to blow by defenders off the dribble and finish over them at the rim. He struggles at times to create separation and often settles for contested midrange jumpers. He’s a good enough shooter (40 percent from 3 on 5.7 attempts per game) that he can still knock them down at a fairly high rate, but he can’t get a bucket whenever he wants.

Cade is more similar to Luka, another supersized point guard who would struggle in a running and jumping competition. But Luka is an absurd shotmaker who can score easily even with defenders draped over him. He shot 57.2 percent from 2-point range in his final season in the EuroLeague before coming to the NBA.

Cunningham is a more deliberate player who loves to probe the defense and then kick the ball back out. The upside of that approach is that he’s not forcing up shots early in possessions and preventing teammates from getting in a rhythm. The downside is that he rarely takes over games on offense or puts his team on his back. He scored more than 30 points only once last season. He’s more of a traditional point guard in that he can dominate the ball without taking a lot of shots.

But Cunningham also showed in Vegas that he can play more than one way. Cade can give up control of the offense and succeed in a smaller role in which he plays off the ball and bombs away from deep. His stats from three summer league games don’t mean much by themselves—what’s interesting is how they compare to his numbers from college. His per-game assist average dropped to 2.3 while his 3-point attempts jumped from 5.7 to 8.7.

The question is whether playing off the ball is something he wants to do in the NBA. Or, more specifically, in Detroit. It would be one thing if Cunningham had landed on a team ready to compete at a high level. He would have been great next to Steph Curry and Draymond Green if Golden State had won the lottery. It’s even possible to imagine him accepting a more complementary role on an up-and-coming team like Minnesota, playing off of elite talent in Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. Detroit doesn’t have anyone like that. There’s no one whom Cade should sacrifice for.

This is where Hayes becomes a problem. Playing Cunningham and Hayes together makes sense on paper: Cade can play off Hayes on offense, and both have the size to guard multiple positions on defense. But why should Cade be the one who accepts a smaller role? Hayes averaged 6.8 points per game on 35.3 percent shooting last season and 6.3 points on 31.8 percent shooting in summer league. None of that means he’ll be a bust; he’s a talented player who’s only 20 years old and missed a huge chunk of his rookie season with a hip injury. But he’s not good enough at this stage of his career to force Cade to change the way he plays.

It would not necessarily be selfish of Cade to want to dominate the ball on a team that won 20 games last season. There’s no point in the no. 1 pick doing all the little things for a team with no one who can do the big things at a high level. He wouldn’t even get much credit from fans and the media who vote for awards for sacrificing his individual stats on a team that wasn’t winning.

Before his game against no. 2 pick Jalen Green, Cade said the right things about not getting caught in the hype of going no. 1. But that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of his reputation. The top priority for most highly touted young players is establishing how good they are individually. The road to All-Star teams early in Cade’s NBA career lies in dominating the ball and putting up big stats like he did in college.

Hayes is the one who will have to change for the partnership to work. There are two things standing in his way. The first is that he’s not a good enough 3-point shooter (27.8 percent on 2.8 attempts per game last season) to play off Cade. The second is that it’s difficult for point guards to move off the ball, even when they can shoot. They have spent their whole lives directing the action and calling their own number. Waiting for someone else to give them the ball requires not just a different skill set but also a change in mentality. Cunningham’s ability to make that transition at such a young age is rare.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey will likely begin the season with Cade and Hayes in the starting lineup and hope to find a balance between them. The best thing for both would be to have their minutes staggered so that each has time to run the offense without the other. But that wouldn’t fix the underlying problem of what to do with Hayes when Cade has the ball. If Hayes can’t change the way he plays, then he could end up on the bench, and then the trading block.

The good news for the Pistons is that they have plenty of players who do fit with Point Cade. Jerami Grant is coming off a breakout season in which he averaged 22.3 points per game without dominating the ball. He should be even better next to a gifted passer like Cade. Saddiq Bey is a prototype 3-and-D wing, and center Isaiah Stewart showed promise on both ends of the floor. That’s a promising group that can grow with their new franchise player over the next few seasons. With Cunningham, Grant, and Bey, Detroit will be one of the biggest perimeter teams in the NBA without the normal offensive trade-offs that come with having that much size.

That two-way potential starts with Cade, a rare primary ball handler who can also serve as a 3-and-D wing. He will probably never be the same kind of offensive force that someone like Luka is, but he also won’t have to be hidden on defense. Cade has the chance to be a difference-maker on both ends of the floor.

Cunningham does so many things well that it’s hard to see how he could bust. The questions with Cade are more about his ceiling. His best chance at living up to expectations is running point and playing with the ball in his hands. It will only be a matter of time before that happens in Detroit.