Detroit Pistons select Cade Cunningham first in the 2021 NBA Draft

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

For the first time in over fifty years, the Detroit Pistons had the first overall pick in the NBA Draft. The league has changed drastically since they took Bob Lanier in 1970. Then, it was common to build a team around a dominant center, and Lanier fit the bill. He was a seven-time All-Star (he produced an eighth with Milwaukee) and was the franchise leader in rebounds until Bill Laimbeer overtook him in 1991.

Nowadays, rebounding centers are nice to have but are not as crucial as they once were. Instead, precision shooting–especially from distance–is the emphasis in the modern game. For a team to be competitive, they also need a guard through whom the offense run smoothly. Having a good defender is a nice bonus. The Pistons attempted to fill all of those roles with one pick in the draft.

The Detroit Pistons used the first overall pick in the draft to select Cade Cunningham, guard from Oklahoma State.

Cade Cunningham had been the presumptive first pick for most of the last college season and into the draft season, and the Pistons organization (not to mention their fan base) have had plenty of opportunities to study his game. The conclusion is obvious: Cunningham is a talented “3 and D” type of player and has the skills, ideally, to help this team compete in the playoffs.

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Through his twenty-seven games with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Cunningham has already proven he has little trouble with the three-point shot. While not lights-out, he still shot 40% on 5.7 attempts per game from behind the line.

Meanwhile, he is also an 85% free throw shooter, which indicates his distance shooting is probably not a fluke. This would put him comfortably near the top of the Pistons’ current lineup. In fact, this would put him roughly in line with the numbers of Saddiq Bey. He particularly excels in isolation, for example, coming off a pick-and-roll. He will be challenged with better perimeter defense than he saw in college, and that will be an early test for the 19-year-old.

If he does run into trouble creating space for himself, however, there is no reason why he can’t shift to the shooting guard slot and let Killian Hayes run the offense. It is entirely possible those two split the guard roles anyway.

This is not to say Cunningham can’t also run an offense; he averaged 3.5 assists per game. In particular, his performance against the eventual national champion, Baylor Bears, is worth watching. The offense he helped create with seven assists led to his Cowboys handing the Bears the second of their only two losses of the season.

For even more evidence, he–along with current NBA star Tyrese Haliburton–led the 2019 United States team to an undefeated championship in the FIBA U19 World Cup when he was just 17.

His defensive skills are impressive, too, especially at his position. 5.5 defensive rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 0.8 blocks translates to the fifth-most defensive win shares in the Big 12. This is far from a be-all and end-all measurement, but it is a decent indicator of what to expect.

He can pick up his position in man-to-man, but he also reads the plays well off the ball. His size is an enormous advantage at the guard spot. At 6’ 8”, he is closer in size to fellow guard Josh Jackson, though he has more bulk.

Of course, shooting, game management, and defense are not the only traits required to be the elite player the Detroit Pistons think Cade Cunningham can be. Still, they are attributes he already excels at and should only improve over time.

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Will he be a generational player? That, of course, remains to be seen. At the very least, the Detroit Pistons hope to have a core around which to build a playoff contender. Cade Cunningham is that player.