Cade Cunningham's quiet debut leaves runway for top pick to lead talented rookie class

DETROIT — Chants of “We want Cade” smattered through Little Caesars Arena, the Detroit faithful wanting more than a sip of action from the No. 1 pick.

A fan base so parched from success over the last decade didn’t seem to mind it was an inauspicious debut for Cade Cunningham; it was just a long wait to see him in a game that mattered.

A cutting layup in the second quarter was his only field goal in the Detroit Pistons’ 110-103 win over the Orlando Magic, with his stat line of two points, seven rebounds and two assists looking indicative of a man who barely had a few days of practice while his team and the league kept it moving.

His best play brought the crowd to its feet, as he locked up Magic rookie Franz Wagner, stripping him on a drive then diving to the floor in a scrum as the shot clock expired. It didn’t even register as a steal, but it showed something.

What it’s a harbinger for is hard to deduce.

“I feel I was solid defensively,” Cunningham said. “And just to prove to myself that my ankle was straight. I could move, guard, do everything well. I got all the jitters out, and now, I can just play free.”

A right ankle sprain suffered on the first day of training camp eliminated his preseason, and he was getting workouts in with the Pistons’ G League team while his team was on the road following the season opener.

Changing his diet to vegan caused him to lose weight following his freshman year at Oklahoma State, and he’s doing more to add strength which will help in the long run.

The last No. 1 pick to have this type of debut was in 2013, when Anthony Bennett scored two points for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But it’s safe to say Cunningham won’t follow the road of a draft bust.

A lot of the small things came easy, and especially for a team that doesn’t have a plethora of strong rebounders, Cunningham will have plenty of chances to dictate tempo and go end-to-end if he so chooses.

Cade Cunningham drives to the basket.
Detroit Pistons rookie guard Cade Cunningham drives to the basket against the Orlando Magic at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Oct. 30, 2021. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

“The speed of the game sped him up a bit, but he still made good decisions,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “The passing, moving the ball [impressed me]. Cade has a nose for the ball, rebounding-wise. Once you get that rebound, we’re off to the races.”

The stars seemed to be aligned for Cunningham to burst onto the scene: It was a jam-packed sports day in Michigan, starting with top-10-ranked Michigan and Michigan State engaging in a classic some 90 miles away and plenty of fans seemed to double dip in the day’s activities. Team owner Tom Gores flew into town to see the most anticipated draft pick in his decade of stewardship.

And, Cunningham’s debut occurred 40 years to the day Isiah Thomas made his first offering to the NBA world, scoring 31 points and 11 assists in a win, beginning his ascent to NBA royalty.

But it was unrealistic to expect some type of cosmic, karmic replication, and Casey has been sure to keep the pressure at the door, noting the minutes restriction Cunningham will be under — along with the feeling Cunningham won’t play Sunday in Brooklyn for a back-to-back.

“I learned a lot while I was out, just sitting to the side and watching games, you know, seeing how I could put myself in there,” Cunningham said. “And I think that's really helped me.”

His most aggressive play, a drive to the basket in the first half, was blocked by Terrence Ross. With timing and strength, he’ll be able to better finish those plays. He didn’t hesitate much on his jump shots, missing all five of his 3-point attempts, believing similarly to his drive, that success won’t be far away.

“I was so anxious for game time today,” Cunningham said. “It’s been so many games where I’ve been part of the warm-up and then I’ve had to sit. This is my first time going through the process, it was fun for me. We got a good win. A lot of guys showed a lot of different things.”

Luckily for Cunningham, the Pistons got their first win with a heavy portion of the schedule upcoming, where they’ll face Brooklyn twice, Milwaukee and Philadelphia in the next week. He was measured and almost jovial during his media session, indicating no stress on his first game, or on the productive rookie class that’s making a mark in the season’s opening weeks.

Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes — who went immediately after Cunningham in July’s draft — have adjusted quite well.

Based on his draft status alone, Cunningham will be expected to lead that pack.

“I’m competitive,” Cunningham said. “I want to be better than who I was yesterday, and, you know, whoever is up against me, but I don't try to compare myself to any of those guys.

“My class is full of big-time talent. So I think it kind of motivates me more to be more of myself. I'm used to us pushing each other to be better. So seeing them guys do their thing, I mean, I'm happy for them. Now I'm excited to get my chance to do my thing.”

And given how long it’s been since the Pistons were relevant, it won’t be long before he’s expected to give more than just a little taste — he’ll be counted on to provide the whole meal.