Eyes on Cade Cunningham: Observing the Pistons’ star in Minneapolis

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MINNEAPOLIS — It’s 5:50 p.m. in downtown Minneapolis, and Cade Cunningham has touched the Target Center court for his pregame shooting routine. Normally, Cunningham would come out onto the floor and walk toward assistant coach Jarrett Jack, who puts him through his workout. Before they start, Jack usually tosses the basketball in his hands as high as he can so that Cunningham can attempt to catch it behind his back before the workout begins. It’s a quirky, fun ritual the two have.

On this day, though, things are disrupted.

As Cunningham walks out, Jack is catching up with former Piston Monté Morris, who is now with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Cunningham sees the two talking and jumps in to give his old teammate a quick hug. Then it’s off to work. Jack launches the ball in the air like a missile, Cunningham tracks its trajectory, gets under it, puts his hands behind his back and … drops it. That’s rare. Cunningham often catches the first one. Jack launches another one. Cunningham, gracefully, cradles it, like a mother picking up her newborn.

At this point, Cunningham’s status for the game set to begin is uncertain. The 2021 No.1 pick is a game-time decision due to knee management, which has kept him out of Detroit’s last two games. The Pistons are in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, which pales in comparison to what the franchise went through to end the 2023 calendar year. Detroit, 12-60, needs Cunningham on the floor to try and close this season with something positive going into the offseason.

Cunningham goes through his work as if he’s going to play, although he did the same thing last Sunday prior to the game against New Orleans and didn’t play. He takes various jump shots from all over the floor, some catch-and-shoot and some off the dribble. He works on different finishes around the rim, sometimes with Jack getting in his way to try and replicate game action. The warmup lasts about 15 minutes before Cunningham heads back to the locker room, his status for the game still up in the air to everyone but him and the team.

Thirty minutes after Cunningham leaves the floor, Detroit’s starting lineup is announced. Cunningham is in it.

With the season winding down, Cunningham returning after missing some games, and 2020 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards on the other side of the floor, tonight seemed like the perfect night to key-in on and watch Cunningham for an entire game.


First quarter

7:10 p.m.: After missing his first shot in the game, a 3-pointer, Cunningham comes down, gets a screen, snakes and gets off what has become his patented midrange jumper over the contested arms of two elite defenders, Jaden McDaniels and Rudy Gobert. That area of the floor is where Cunningham is most comfortable. He likes to get a shot off early in the midrange to try and get into a rhythm.

7:17 p.m.: The Timberwolves are hounding Cunningham whenever he has the ball, but he’s feeling it right now. He just hit his second triple in five minutes and has 10 points in that time. It hasn’t been easy, as Minnesota has already blocked one of his shot attempts and caused him to stumble while dribbling. But Cunningham has recovered each time and looks to be aggressive in looking for his shot in his return. Cunningham is letting the ball fly with even a sliver of space.

7:24 p.m.: Cunningham gets stripped by Edwards, who hit a 3 on the other end. Cunningham found himself in a vulnerable spot out of the inbound — in the corner of the floor, smothered by two Minnesota defenders. Turnovers have been an issue for Cunningham at various points this season, but he’s improved in that department immensely over the last few months. Still, Cunningham can have a tendency to be nonchalant when dribbling against pressure. Edwards won that battle.

7:27 p.m.: Cunningham checks out with a game-high 12 points in less than nine minutes. Detroit is down by seven, but Cunningham has done his part on the offensive end. He’s playing with real aggressiveness, as if he was champing at the bit to get back to playing. Let’s see if that continues when he returns in the second quarter.

7:33 p.m.: Pistons forward Toast Evbuomwan hits a corner 3 to get Detroit’s deficit down to five. Cunningham, sitting on the bench, stands up and gives his teammate an applause. He’s the only one on the bench to get up. Cunningham is the team’s leader and has been very pivotal in helping new additions, like Evbuomwan, get comfortable. Even late in games, with Detroit down big and Cunningham’s night over, the 22-year-old is often engaged on the bench, getting up and cheering on the end-of-bench players. It’s something that many of Cunningham’s teammates have told me that they appreciate about him and his leadership.

Second quarter

7:48 p.m.: Cunningham has been back in the game for less than a minute and already taken two shots. His assertiveness has maintained, but his luck has changed. Minnesota’s defense is part of the reason why. It’s a long bunch that is instinctively sound. Cunningham’s first shot was another midrange attempt that he had to get up over the stretched-out arm of McDaniels. That shot fell wide.

On the next possession, Cunningham pushed the pace, hit McDaniels with a spin move at the free-throw line and created a lane to the basket. McDaniels, though, was able to recover and, along with Naz Reid, forced Cunningham to try to finish through a crowd. The layup attempt rolled around the rim. Cunningham is seeing the gaps in Minnesota’s defense, but that group is so athletic and long that, at times, it has closed up quickly for the Pistons guard. It appears as if he’s picked that up after the last two attempts.

7:55 p.m.: Cunningham is forced to throw up a prayer as the shot clock is winding down. The attempt misses badly. It’s only the second shot on the night where Cunningham felt truly rushed. Minnesota’s defense once again closed a gap quickly that Cunningham saw.

8:00: p.m.: Cunningham’s next shot is another uncomfortable one, this time as he tries to beat the halftime buzzer. The shot falls well short and is another example of “you win some, you lose some” as McDaniels’ defense was superb. Cunningham was frustrated after the shot, as it appeared he wasn’t happy with the lack of separation he was unable to create. Overall, though, Cunningham was the best player on the court in a game that featured multiple All-Stars. He walks back to the locker room with a game-high 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting. The Pistons only trail by three.

Detroit got blasted in its previous two games, once by Boston and the other by New York. Cunningham missed both of those. Now that he’s back, the Pistons have a chance … for now.

Third quarter

8:18 p.m.: Once again, Cunningham starts the half aggressive but isn’t as comfortable against the Minnesota defense. The long arms of the Timberwolves stripped Cunningham on a drive. On the next play, Cunningham gets by Edwards and gets to the paint but his lefty floater misses. The spaces are there for Cunningham, but they continue to close quickly.

8:19 p.m.: After a Pistons steal, Cunningham gets a screen and dribbles down the heart of the defense and dunks … hard. Rudy Gobert didn’t bother getting in the way. This season, more than his previous two (really one), Cunningham has had more dunks in a half-court setting. He’s doing a better job of changing speeds and forcefully going to the rim.

8:27 p.m.: Cunningham’s quest for buckets continues, this time at the free-throw line, a place he doesn’t visit with as much regularity as other NBA players who have as high of a usage as he does. On this possession, Cunningham patiently navigates a screen, gets his defender on his hip, hits a hesitation and pump-fakes to get his defender in the air. Cunningham then rises up to shoot and get the foul. Cunningham doesn’t often get fouled while shooting jumpers, and it would be a nice addition to his game if it ever comes around.

8:29 p.m.: The Pistons’ star guard has found his rhythm. He’s got six-straight points and has helped Detroit get a two-point lead with just under five minutes left in the third quarter. Cade got downhill and finished with great touch at the rim over a leaping Edwards.

Seconds later, Cunningham once again gets into the paint and, again, gets fouled. He’s in attack mode, and with so many of his teammates out due to injury, that is Detroit’s best chance to win. He knows it.

8:33 p.m.: On defense, Cunningham gets got by Minnesota’s Kyle Anderson in an isolation situation. The man known as “Slow Mo” very carefully dribbled through the lane and hit Cunningham with a Euro step before hitting a floater off the glass. Cunningham, for the most part, has been solid on defense tonight. He got caught sleeping in the first quarter and lost McDaniels for a layup, and he got caught too far under the rim on two different occasions in the first half. Cunningham has the tools to be a good defender. There are times it really pops, primarily when the Pistons are in a close game late. His biggest downfall on that end is off the ball, where he sometimes gets beat backdoor. When, if, the Pistons are ever competitive while Cunningham is here, I think we see a more locked-in defender more often. He’s got the tools.

Cunningham checks out after a Monty Williams timeout. His third quarter is done, and he’ll leave with 25 points. The Pistons are down by two. Will they still have a chance when Cunningham returns?

We’ll see.

Fourth quarter

8:51 p.m.: Cunning is at the scorer’s table, ready to check back in. When he left the game, the Pistons were down by two. As he comes back, Detroit is down by 14. All year, the Pistons haven’t been able to survive the non-Cunningham minutes. Detroit has a ton of bodies out tonight, most notably Jaden Ivey, who would have possibly been able to keep the scoreboard moving while Cunningham sat if Williams staggered the two guards. Tonight, though, the Pistons’ best bench option has been Malachi Flynn.

There’s 7:33 left to play in the game. Maybe Cunningham can pull out something.

8:59 p.m.: Cunningham still has his foot on the gas, trying to help his team claw back as they now play against the clock, too. He’s got four-straight points for Detroit, his last two coming from the free-throw line.

Those last two points put Cunningham at 29 points on the night with time to spare. It’s the seventh game since the All-Star break where Cunningham has scored 27 or more points.

9:00 p.m.: Cunningham steps into a spot-up 3. Nothing but net. He’s at 32 points on 50 percent shooting. It feels like this one is over, though. The Pistons can’t stop the Timberwolves from scoring on the other end. Detroit trails by 14.

9:08 p.m.: Cunningham’s night is over. He finishes with 32 points in 29 minutes in yet another Detroit loss.

This season has been disastrous for the Pistons. It wasn’t supposed to be. Everything that could go wrong has — and then some. However, the most important thing for this organization was to learn if Cunningham could, in fact, be a top player in this league. Performances like this one have become more of the norm for Cunningham. More often lately, the Pistons’ guard has been the player on a court shared by All-Stars. He’s got what they have in terms of skill, make-up, but just doesn’t have the accolades to show for it.

Detroit has a piece to build around. If you doubted that before this season, I can imagine that has changed as this long, dreadful season has gone on. Cunningham continues to get better. He continues to live up to the billing.

This night was yet another example of why the Pistons need to get more around Cunningham … sooner rather than later.

(Photo: David Berding / Getty Images)

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