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Cade Cunningham: A franchise defining player

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

Nevada Hargress, Guest Writer

Cade Cunningham pictured during a game against the Toronto Raptors on November 13, 2021 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo//Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

The first overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Cade Cunningham, has proven to be one of the most well-rounded and versatile rookies this season.

Prior to being selected by the Detroit Pistons, Cunningham rose to stardom in high school while playing for Montverde Academy. In his senior season, Cunningham averaged 13.9 points, 6.4 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game. He led his team to an undefeated record that same year while playing just 22 minutes per game. In addition to this, Cunningham was awarded a number of awards, including Mr. Basketball USA and MaxPreps National Player of the Year.

As a consensus five-star recruit, Cunningham received numerous NCAA Division 1 offers before committing to Oklahoma State University. As an anticipated one-and-done player, Cunningham elevated his game and was awarded several accolades, including Big 12 Rookie of the Year and Big 12 Player of the Year.

It is no secret that the Detroit Pistons have struggled to build a winning team in recent years. In fact, the Pistons have the longest playoff losing streak in NBA history with 14 consecutive losses. Despite acquiring all-star caliber players in Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, and Derrick Rose, the Pistons were still unable to rise out of mediocrity.

A large part of the team's struggles derived from its poor drafting record. Within the past decade, the Pistons have passed on some of the league's biggest stars, including Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

These missteps were detrimental to the team's development and caused fans to question the decisions made by the front office. Recognizing the need for change, Pistons ownership finally opted to pull the plug on the team's roster and front office after the 2019-2020 season.

Shortly after the offseason began, the Pistons looked to rebuild the franchise from the ground up with the hiring of Troy Weaver as their new general manager. The move excited fans and signaled a new era of revival for the beloved franchise.

With multiple first-round picks, the 2020 NBA Draft was quite the success for the Pistons. They were able to secure three promising players in Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart. Though Hayes was injured for the majority of the season, both Bey and Stewart were named to the NBA All-Rookie Teams. While they finished last in the Eastern Conference, the Pistons showed that they had a solid foundation for building an impressive young core.

Cade Cunningham talks to the media after being drafted #1 overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 2021 NBA Draft. Photo//Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images

After an impressive year at Oklahoma State, Cunningham was expected to be the first overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft. With their selection, the Pistons chose Cunningham for his versatility and unique playmaking abilities. Once the news of this selection broke, Pistons fans quickly embraced the young star and waited eagerly for his NBA debut.

Prior to the start of the season, Cunningham suffered an ankle injury and missed the entire pre-season along with the team's first four games.

After being cleared to play, Cunningham faced significant difficulties with his shooting. Despite his slow start, Cunningham was able to eventually adjust to the league's fast-paced tempo while showcasing his strong leadership abilities.

Throughout the season, Cunningham steadily improved his game and seemed to be a do-everything guard. With the season coming to end, he ranks in the top five among rookies for numerous statistical categories, including points, rebounds, assists, steals, three’s, and triple-doubles.

Cunningham has also been awarded Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for January as well as the Rising Stars Challenge MVP.

In addition to these accolades, Cunningham has put himself in legendary company by joining Michael Jordan as the only rookies in NBA history with a stat line of at least 34 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, and 4 steals. He is also the 10th rookie in NBA history to average at least 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in a season.

Cade Cunningham talks with his team during a pre-game huddle against the Philadelphia 76ers at Little Caesars Arena on March 31, 2022. Photo// Nic Antaya//NBAE via Getty Images

At just 20 years old, Cade Cunningham has proven to be a versatile go-to player who is highly impactful to his team. As a pass-first player, Cunningham is able to make his teammates better by facilitating the offense and creating opportunities for them to score.

Off the court, Cunningham makes his presence known by being a vocal leader who encourages and guides his teammates. Leading all rookies in clutch points, Cunningham has also shown that he can carry his team to victory in high-pressure situations.

After an impressive season, many believe Cunningham is deserving of Rookie of the Year. Pistons head coach Dwane Casey supported this notion saying, “He is Rookie of the Year, it is not even close as far as talent evaluation. I’ve been in it a long time. He’s playing like a 10-year vet.”

This year's rookie race has been highly competitive with a number of players making a compelling case for winning the award. Cunningham currently has the third-highest odds of winning, behind Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes.

Nonetheless, Cade Cunningham has won over Pistons fans and has performed exceedingly well in his rookie season.

As a well-rounded player with a high basketball IQ and genuine leadership skills, Cunningham has already shown that he is a special talent. Though the Pistons will finish the season at the bottom in their conference, it is now safe to say that they have found their franchise player in Cade Cunningham.

After a historic rookie season, the future is definitely bright for Cunningham and the Pistons. As for the rest of the NBA, the scary part is that he has not even tapped into his full potential yet.

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