25-under-25: Cade Cunningham at No. 18


Cade Cunningham is a franchise-changing talent. But the Detroit Pistons will need to be patient with him as he grows into himself.

The night Cade Cunningham went first in the draft to the Detroit Pistons, Kendrick Perkins called him the most complete draftee since LeBron James. Anthony Davis and Luka Dončić may disagree, but simply by being in the conversation with those luminaries Cunningham’s legend has already begun before he’s played a single NBA game. Landing the top pick and the right to select Cunningham is the best news the Pistons have had in years. The good news for Cade: Detroit’s roster is no wasteland. A handful of players between 19 and 26 have individual skills that should blend smoothly with Cunningham’s jack-of-all-trades mastery.

Jerami Grant scored 22 a game last year, a career-high, though understandably the promotion from being the fourth or fifth option in Denver to the lead option in Detroit led to a drop in his efficiency. Grant played well enough to finish second for Most Improved Player; playing alongside Cunningham should help his shooting numbers improve. Killian Hayes, the teenage point guard taken in last year’s lottery, can expand his role and develop his skills with a bit less pressure to be the lead initiator on offense.

Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, two of last season’s more impressive rookies, now have a year under their belts and the chance to go through an entire training camp with Cunningham. Hamidou Diallo reprises his Vinnie Johnson microwave impression, averaging better than 11 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes a night, shooting 39 percent on 3-pointers, after coming over from Oklahoma City midseason. The Pistons will struggle to win many games. But Cunningham’s presence and ability to mesh with almost any other type of player mean they should win more. They’re moving in the right direction.

Cade Cunningham is a rising tide that can lift all boats for the Detroit Pistons

Perkins’ point on draft night about how complete Cunningham’s game is can be debated. But the simple act of drafting him first overall shows how much confidence he inspires. He’s not especially big or athletic, yet he was the consensus top pick ahead of the much bigger Evan Mobley or athletic super freak Jalen Green. Most of the last 10 players taken first haven’t made much of a dent with their teams; the ones who did are all bigs, in size if not approach. Since 2012 only Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons and Deandre Ayton played meaningful roles in the playoffs for the team that drafted them.

Kyrie Irving gets an asterisk — he did hit a series-winning shot to clinch Cleveland’s 2016 title, but Irving never came close to making the playoffs there before LeBron James returned. Anthony Bennett was out of the NBA after four years. Andrew Wiggins is a decent player but has never approached the expectations people had of him. Markelle Fultz has had a hard enough time just solidifying his place as a viable but unspectacular player. Zion Williamson and Anthony Edwards haven’t had been in the league long enough to make much noise.

For what it’s worth, history is not exactly on Cunningham’s side. The last wing selected No. 1 overall to play significant postseason minutes for his original team? You have to go back to LeBron in his first Cleveland stint. Before LeBron? There was Glenn Robinson in 1994. There was James Worthy in 1982. That’s 40 years of history, more than half the NBA’s lifespan, with only a few somewhat comparable circumstances to Cade’s. And most of those historic comps don’t really hold water — Robinson was drafted as a scorer, period. Worthy, who became a productive passer at the end of his career but also entered the league known for his bucketeering, joined a Lakers team that had won two of the last three championships. Ironically it is LeBron, perhaps the most peerless player in the history of the league, who may serve as the best comparison for Cunningham. And the best reason why patience will be needed.

Cleveland missed the playoffs in James’ first two years in the league. Not because LeBron was anything less than advertised; it’s just that organizations need time to transition from bad to good, even when led by a great. In this year’s Summer League, Cunningham’s teammates shot just 25 percent from 3-point range. There’s every likelihood that no matter how good Cade is, no matter how many promising young players Detroit has to play with him, the Pistons will be one of the league’s worst teams this year. What matters more, and which is part of the hope a player like Cunningham brings to a franchise, is that they no longer appear to have one of the league’s worst futures. Far from it, in fact. For that alone, he’s already a success.

30 years before the Pistons drafted Cunningham, they drafted Isiah Thomas. Thomas didn’t want to go to Detroit and tried to convince them not to take him, for good reason. After the 1980-81 season, the Pistons had spent 24 years in Detroit and posted a winning record in only three of them. The roster lacked any high-end talent. Thomas had nothing to go on but faith. That faith was eventually rewarded. Detroit has every reason to hope their latest savior rewards their faith someday.

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