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'Alpha male' Cade Cunningham has runway to lead Pistons and be next face of franchise

·5 min read
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LAS VEGAS — Cade Cunningham’s voice boomed through the Thomas & Mack Center at summer league, the latest No. 1 pick to assert himself at the first showcase for NBA rookies.

There’s only so much to glean from the actual basketball being played; it’s more physical than regular-season basketball, more desperate for back-end players attempting to make a good impression and a crash course for rookies just getting their feet wet.

But there are small morsels that can serve as harbingers for things to come, more subtleties within than the raw box scores will display. Like Cunningham’s constant encouragement of teammates and directing traffic on the floor, and his presence being felt even when he was inactive after playing the first handful of games.

He didn’t shrink himself during his first sample of professional basketball, unconventional as it may be to the real thing.

Cunningham looked like himself, performed like himself and comported himself as if he belonged there.

He was comfortable in his own skin, a simple notion that is often hard to execute for the league’s youngest players where men with much more life experience occupy real estate on the floor and in the locker room.

Detroit Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham looked the part of the next phase of the franchise during summer league play, both on the court and through his leadership. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Detroit Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham looked the part of the next phase of the franchise during summer league play, both on the court and through his leadership. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Now to be clear, Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk weren’t in Vegas — the two impact vets on the roster — to take leadership from Cunningham. It doesn’t seem like they would be an impediment to Cunningham taking a prominent role when training camp begins in a month, though.

It’s an oft-used term, but Pistons coach Dwane Casey called Cunningham an “alpha male.”

“He has leadership qualities,” Casey told Yahoo Sports. “But he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve or force it on anyone. It’s natural. He’s a natural leader, which is rare for a 19-year-old kid.”

Is he a franchise savior?

Who knows, but he’ll be given the runway to lead, to assert himself as a force for a franchise that needs an identity and a face to match it with.

Casey signed an extension that will carry him through the 2023-24 season, so he’ll be around to shepherd Cunningham through this incubation period. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver has reshaped this roster twice in two years, drafting key cogs like Saddiq Bey, who finished high in the Rookie of the Year voting last season.

Killian Hayes, a top-10 pick from last season who missed a big chunk after a hip injury, will share backcourt space with Cunningham.

So the stability is there, and they’ll provide runway for Cunningham to lead. There’s a collection of young players Weaver has compiled and the team will continue to shift, but the hope is Cunningham will be the constant — and the leader.

His play during summer league was promising, although Casey noted in a radio interview that Cunningham wasn’t in the best basketball shape due to not working out much through the pre-draft process.

That said, his performance didn’t look like someone who was rusty or being a step slow. His back-and-forth with Houston’s Jalen Green garnered plenty of attention, and Green made his feelings known about being No. 2 — which will set up a twice-a-year, tête-à-tête matchup with Cunningham.

“Any time the game is close or in crunch time, I kind of feel like a magnet from my hands to the ball,” Cunningham said after hitting some big late shots against the Knicks, seven 3-pointers in all. “I want the ball in my hands. My teammates trust me. I’m going to keep bragging on my teammates.”

Even when he could reasonably flex on his performance, he shifted attention to his teammates with a veteran savvy. He knows the attention and eyeballs will be on him but understands how it affects the room.

That’s something Weaver and Casey noted, but can’t teach or force on him.

Other league executives were impressed by Cunningham’s poise, even down to the way he wasn’t sped up by opponents.

“That ‘it’ factor, whatever it is, he’s got that,” a Western Conference GM told Yahoo Sports. “He carries a presence when he’s in a room, on the floor.”

Cunningham’s polish was evident, and when his deliberate pace was brought up as perhaps him being too polished, the executive made the comparison to Larry Bird.

“I’ve heard Grant Hill, but Grant was a super athlete. Cade isn’t a high-flyer in that way,” he said. “Bird got to his spots no matter if you knew where he was going, he got there. Cade has that level of skill, court-vision and shooting ability.”

There are questions, of course. Being able to play at a faster speed against experienced defenders who want to disrupt Cunningham’s internal clock, body him and make him uncomfortable.

He didn’t test his limits, never tried doing 70 in a 55 mph zone. But all of that will come in time, especially as he gains more experience and learns his teammates.

For now, though, he looks very comfortable being the No. 1 pick for a franchise that needs him to play like it and act like it.

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