The Whiteboard: All eyes should be on Cade Cunningham

Detroit Pistons, The Whiteboard

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Cade Cunningham has the skill to be literally anything for the Detroit Pistons. How will the pairing with Jaden Ivey shape his future?

Cade Cunningham’s bag, as the kids would say, is deep.

He’s got the step-back 3. The mid-range pull-up game. He can get himself to the tin. Bully smaller players in the post. Smash through the defense in transition. He can make passing angles appear out of nowhere, and hit cutters with pinpoint precision. Consistency is coming but there’s really not an offensive play he can’t make.

But, at the risk of losing the forest for the trees, I want to focus on just one.

These kinds of passes find their way far into highlight reels far less often than no-looks and lobs but they are no less difficult, requiring just as much physical accuracy and mental awareness and prescience.

In the play above, Cunningham has the ball in his right hand for the one-handed, slingshot pass to the corner before he even hits the 3-point line. At that point, there are ostensibly three defenders between him and Saddiq Bey and no one, on either team, including Cunningham, is looking at Bey. These passes aren’t all that rare but they’re rare enough that only a handful of players can make them consistently and even the most well-schooled defender will usually instinctually focus on other options before this one.

But, with one hand, Cunningham delivers an absolute crosscourt strike, through the defense and into the waiting shooting pocket of Bey. I picked this one clip because it’s the first example I found, but it’s certainly not the only one.

There’s this.

And this.

I’m talking about Cunningham, from the center or the right side of the floor, delivering a one-handed, righty fastball to the opposite corner. According to NBA CourtOptix, Cunningham made 47 passes last season from outside the paint — in the middle or right side of the floor to the left-hand corner — in the ballpark of one per game. The data presentation on the NBA’s website doesn’t allow for easy comparison to other players but that feels like a lot of crosscourt passes into a tight window. Not all of those were of the one-handed variety and just 15 of those went for assists but we can chalk some of that low conversion rate up to the receivers — Jerami Grant (34 percent on corner 3s), Killian Hayes, (32.3 percent), Hamidou Diallo (26.5 percent) and Saben Lee (21.4 percent).

Cunningham is still learning the role of primary creator at the NBA level. His 10.5 potential assists per game were in the top 50 in the NBA last season but on par with players like Kevin Porter Jr. and CJ McCollum. He passed on just 40.7 percent of his drives, closer to the score-first tendencies of players like Tyler Herro (39.5 percent) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (40.2 percent) than facilitators like Darius Garland (48.5 percent) or Tyrese Haliburton (53.6 percent).

But that’s understandable when you also have the potent scoring tools that Cunningham does — when you’re adjusting to a new level and learning how to bend the action to your desired outcomes sometimes it’s easier to hold a bit more tightly to what you can control completely.

How will Jaden Ivey help shape the development of Cade Cunningham?

This year will be an adjustment for Cunningham, sharing the backcourt with Jaden Ivey. Neither has been particularly efficient in the preseason — 30.6 percent from the field and 21.7 percent from beyond the arc for Cunningham, 34.1 and 14.3 percent, respectively for Ivey.

There is a synergy to be had between the two players but it’s not likely to come from Ivey as a static spot-up threat around Cunningham’s pick-and-rolls, at least not at this point. To begin the season, it’s about grab-and-go transition, early offense opportunities and each player attacking on the weakside against a defense that has already been forced into rotation.

I have no problem saying that Cunningham is and will continue to be the better of the two players and, as such, his comfort zone should be dictating where and how Ivey is used. But that’s the beauty of a player like Cunningham, who can score in so many different ways, who sees the floor as well as any wing creators in the league and who is capable of routinely making the most difficult passes in the game. Cunningham has the tools to be literally anything and is much more suited to adaptation.

I think that’s what I see when Cunningham flings those one-handed bullets to the opposite corner — limitless potential. It’s just one tree, but you can still marvel at its unique and intricate design without forgetting there is an entire basketball forest behind it, teeming with endless iterations of breathtaking diversity.


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