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It was a lovefest for Pistons and No. 1 NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham, but what's up with the Larry Bird comparison?

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DETROIT — Cade Cunningham may not have been prepping to be in Detroit, but Detroit has been prepping for the Oklahoma State star all season long, culminating in Cunningham being the first pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night.

It wasn’t that Cunningham didn’t want to be a Piston; quite the contrary. It’s just that being the first pick was the ultimate goal at this stage and Detroit happened to be the city he would call home.

With all the speculation about the Pistons looking to move the No. 1 pick, it would seem like they weren’t all-in on Cunningham. But for a team trying to “restore” as opposed to rebuild, in the words of general manager Troy Weaver, the Pistons had to explore all avenues to acquire as much top talent and affordable talent as possible — so long as they didn’t get out of the top three picks.

So the match made in Motown is official, punctuated by the approval of 5,000 fans who gathered inside Little Caesars Arena for a draft party when NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced Cunningham’s name.

He soaked up all of the Detroit love during a visit to Comerica Park recently, home of MLB’s Detroit Tigers and fans showered him with all the adulation deserving of a top pick.

Cade Cunningham arrives at the 2021 NBA draft where the Detroit Pistons selected him with the No. 1 overall pick. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)
Cade Cunningham arrives at the 2021 NBA draft where the Detroit Pistons selected him with the No. 1 overall pick. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

He pulled out a pair of Cartier buffs after being selected first, as a nod to the Detroit culture, and spoke about several ridges in the city’s rich history during conversations with the media, further ingratiating himself to Detroit even before he was drafted.

“I've been working to be the top guy for a long time,” Cunningham said on a conference call following the selection. “When I heard Detroit had the No. 1 pick, I was ecstatic. I knew it was possible that I was going to be in a great situation, and a situation I could grow in.”

There’s plenty of fertile land for Cunningham to develop, and the doubts can be easily quelled with a dynamic rookie season. He doesn’t jump off the screen with his athleticism, not in the same way as Jalen Green — another favorite of the Pistons organization — or Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer to whom he’s drawn the most comparisons.

Hill was special in Detroit, and underappreciated. If Cunningham has the type of on-floor effect Hill did, then history will not repeat itself. Hill was selected third in a historic 1994 draft, taken after Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and Jason Kidd. Hill and Kidd were co-rookies of the year, and Robinson was a deadly scorer.

Cunningham, Green and Evan Mobley could wind up following in those footsteps, and the Pistons were enamored with all three.

“I thought I was gonna get a standing ovation, everybody picked him [before Thursday]. I finally got to say it tonight,” Weaver said. “I just wanted to make sure we did our job and did our work. ... The pressure of it for me was doing the work. It took us awhile to get here, but we’re excited. I’m thrilled.”

Weaver has a bit of riverboat gambler in him, turning over a roster with not much upside to one with some hope and a few pieces that can develop sooner rather than later. With that in mind, especially being the biggest advocate for Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City’s draft room in 2008, there was suspense and the thought that maybe he could take Green, the explosive athlete.

But in a statement he knew would make old-school Pistons fans cringe, he compared Cunningham to Larry Bird — yes, that Larry Bird.

“One of my favorite players of all time. It would be blasphemous to say this in Michigan,” said Weaver, harkening back to growing up with Len Bias. “I struggle with putting a top five together all time without Larry Bird. He had the sharpest mind that I’ve seen. Cunningham, his mind allows him to play faster, see and feel things even if he’s not a superior athlete.”

Saddiq Bey isn’t a superior athlete, but the 19th overall draft pick finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting — with room to improve. Isaiah Stewart was also a revelation and probably a reason why the Pistons felt comfortable trading Mason Plumlee to free up salary-cap space for a backup big in free agency.

Cunningham will have young legs to run with and won’t have the sole responsibility of having to make every play as he learns the league. He moves fluidly, if not quickly. He gets to where he needs to and if he’s clogged, has no problems locating the open man.

It doesn’t feel quite like survival of the fittest, but one would expect the competition will be fierce for the hierarchy on this team. Olympian Jerami Grant is the incumbent best player, and Killian Hayes showed flashes of good court vision upon his return from an early hip injury.

Cunningham will walk in with the pedigree of being the top selection and should have runway under head coach Dwane Casey.

“You want guys to come in here and work hard, playing together,” Weaver said. “And he has a tremendous competitive spirit. He’s very intelligent on the floor. The leadership, versatility and connectability put him over the top.”

Cunningham mentioned the playoffs, a special land the Pistons haven’t spent serious time in for over a decade, being swept in the first round in 2016 and 2018.

“I’m grateful Detroit has passed me the baton, and I want to take it and sprint with it,” he said.

Cunningham talks like someone who knows how important he is to the task ahead, even if he won’t feel pressure from the franchise to be a savior.

Even before being a Piston, he learned the most important lesson: If you love Detroit, it’ll love you back.

That’ll buy him a little time — a little.

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