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Pistons’ Cade Cunningham keeping his eyes on a bigger picture

The start to the Detroit Pistons 2021 Summer League could be called rocky. While the losses haven’t sat well with rookie Cade Cunningham, he understands that these bumps are a part of the bigger picture to restore the team.

Cunningham is well aware of the buzz that he generates as the top pick. Ahead of Summer League, he wanted the Pistons to make a splash and win it all. He understood the hype ahead of Tuesday’s game against Jalen Green and the Houston Rockets.

With two losses, though, he has shifted the focus toward a more long-term goal, building chemistry with his teammates and getting ready for the regular season.

“I know what you know the hype was around the game but you know we have bigger goals to try to reach, bigger fish to fry,” the 19-year-old said on Tuesday. “I mean it’s a Summer League game. We got to stay focused on how we can be the best that we can be in the regular season.”

Since the Pistons drafted Cunningham in July, the Arlington, TX. native has tried to keep things in perspective. While the results of the first two games last Sunday and Tuesday did not sit right with him, he understood that there are still kinks to work out.

The restoration of the franchise is still in its early days and things are still relatively fresh with him and his new teammates. They have had just a few weeks of practice together and Cunningham is still getting back into the swing of things after four months away from five-on-five play.

But things have begun to click for the No. 1 overall pick.

While the 20-point loss to the Rockets was a tough pill to swallow, the skills that got Cunningham to the top of several NBA draft boards were on display. He scored 20 points on 8-of-18 shooting while making four of his nine shot attempts from distance. On Friday night he looked even better.

He sank seven of his 10 tries from three to end the night with 24 points and push the Pistons to their first win over the New York Knicks at Summer League. On top of his strong offensive night, he showed that he could be the guy the Pistons turn to in crunch time when the games are close.

Last season the Pistons went 7-25 in clutch time, which is the last five minutes of a game when a team is up or down by five points or fewer. So with Knicks forward, Obi Toppin willing his team to the end, the Pistons and Cunningham kept their cool.

It was pretty evident in the final three minutes of Friday’s action. With 2:50 on the clock, second-year forward Saddiq Bey launched a three from the top of the arc. It bounced off the iron, but rookie center Luka Garza took the ball inside as the Knicks double-teamed him.

New York’s Immanuel Quickley knocked the ball loose but Cunningham quickly jumped on top of it and pushed it toward Bey. As the Villanova product tossed it over to guard Killian Hayes, Cunningham sprinted across the baseline to the corner before knocking down his last triple of the game. His basket put the Pistons up 82-69 with 2:39 left on the clock.

“There’s a reason we drafted him at one,” assistant coach JD DuBois said on Friday. “His ability to do multiple things, his ability to make tough shots, to want the ball. His leadership, both with his voice and with his actions. He prepares at a high level each and every day. His leadership is consistent. When you see performances like this, you’re not shocked because he worked really hard at it on a consistent basis.”

Cunningham has already embraced being “the guy” his team needs in those moments.

“Any time the game is close, in crunch time, I feel a magnet from my hands to the ball,” Cunningham said. “I want the ball in my hands. My teammates trusted me. I’m going to keep bringing up my teammates. It was a big-time team win today. That’s what we needed, I think, as far as just trying to go into the right direction and building. The game got close, I just tried to put us ahead.”

While Cuningham has begun to find his rhythm, he’s keeping things in perspective. He’s focused on building chemistry with his teammates. He’s embracing his role on the team. He’s also looking ahead to even bigger things.

“I mean more than anything I want to show that I can translate right away and that I can be ready for an 82 game season,” Cuningham said. “A lot of people talk about (the) rookie wall and things like that. So I want to be able to prepare myself to get through that and play a strong season.

“It’s rookie year, you know making the playoffs will be huge for us. So if we can get into the playoff bubble, playoff play-in games, I feel like that’s the main goal right now and if we can get to that I feel like that would do a lot for me and my confidence.”


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