2021 NBA Draft: Detroit Pistons Wins Lottery, Could Nab 6-foot-8 Point Guard Cade Cunningham
Pistons come up with first overall selection
The Detroit Pistons now have a chance to bring a generational talent to their camp, and help change the franchise’s slumping fortunes in the NBA. As it turns out, the Pistons, who finished with a measly record of 20 wins against 52 defeats this season, has won the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery, putting themselves in position to potentially select Cade Cunningham, the top overall pick in most draft boards.
With the Pistons bagging the first overall selection, the Houston Rockets followed at second, while the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, and Orlando Magic rounded up the Top 5. The Oklahoma City Thunder nabbed the sixth overall pick, while the Golden State Warriors have the chance to add another young talent to their roster. The Warriors received this pick via the Minnesota Timberwolves, who sent their pick to Golden State in that Andrew Wiggins-D’Angelo Russell trade.
The Magic will again select with their 8thoverall pick, while the Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Pelicans round out the Top 10. The Charlotte Hornets will select next, followed by the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers. The Warriors will have their original selection with the 14th overall pick in the upcoming draft.
The Pistons finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference this year, and that was mainly because they decided to rebuild their roster and invest more on young talent. They got rid of veterans like Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin with an obvious outlook of developing young talent rather than winning games. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that given the personnel that they have.
However, it is without a doubt that the Pistons are still far from contending in the East even with the first overall pick in their arsenal. As per James L. Edwards III of The Athletic, it is true that there is still a cloud of uncertainty for teams who receive the draft jackpot of picking first from a pool of talented yet unproven young players.
The other teams that have been lucky to capture the No. 1 pick are still struggling or on the rise but the top picks aren’t necessarily “the guys.” Minnesota remains in disarray. The same goes for the Pelicans. The Suns are on the cusp of the NBA Finals, but it took the arrival of Chris Paul to even be a respectable franchise once again. The 76ers have been a top dawg in the East for the last few years, but their star is Joel Embiid, who went No. 3 overall in 2014. Additionally, their No. 1 pick in 2017, Markelle Fultz, is now in Orlando. Ben Simmons (No. 1, 2o16) has been a big part of Philadelphia’s success but the narrative on him is continuing to trend negatively as the 76ers enter a territory shared amongst the league’s elite.
I hope you didn’t read this and get discouraged about getting the No. 1 pick. You still want it. Always. LeBron James went No. 1. Shaq. Magic. David Robinson. Allen Iverson. Tim Duncan. Cornerstones of organizations, franchise-altering talents, all-time greats are found at No. 1. They’re also found all over the board. Cunningham could be one of those guys. Whoever the Pistons select at Nos. 2, 3, 4 5 or 6 could be one of those guys, too. The draft is a crapshoot. Injuries happen. Skill sets don’t always translate to the highest level. However, when you’re a franchise starting from the ground up, trying to work your way out of the league’s cellar, the No. 1 pick is a great resource to have.
As for the Pistons’ current roster, it is without a doubt that the promise is there. They already have a young budding two-way star in place in Jerami Grant. Grant, who turned 27 years of age last March, is coming off the best season of his career. The 6-foot-9 combo forward put up an all-around stat line of 22.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest. Grant showed that he is not just good on defense, but that he can also create his own shots on the other end of the floor.
Aside from the drastic improvement of Grant, there is also the fact that the Pistons have three young rookies who showed promise this season. Killian Hayes, the 8th overall pick in last year’s draft, displayed glimpses of his playmaking and defense. He may have struggled because of injuries and inexperience, but you could sense that he has a unique feel for the game.
There is also Saddiq Bey, who was probably the second-brightest spot in the Pistons’ performance this season. Bey came through with a tremendous stat line of 12.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 0.7 steals per contest, while shooting a very efficient 38% clip from the three-point line. That is an incredible feat for a rookie who logged in only 27.3 minutes per contest in 70 games this season. Isaiah Stewart is also a revelation for the Pistons’ frontcourt depth this season, especially with the toughness and defensive presence that he brings to the game.
So with the top pick in the upcoming draft, the Pistons are getting an elite young player to add to their already-growing pile of assets. Cade Cunningham is arguably the most complete player in this batch, but will he fit the Pistons’ current roster? Cunningham is a point guard who could take the ball away from Hayes, who is also a playmaker. As per Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer, there is still the possibility that the Pistons will opt to take a different route that will lead them to potentially selecting big man Evan Mobley.
Detroit could elect to look elsewhere at no. 1, searching for a player who better complements Hayes. Green, an electric 6-foot-5 shooting guard who is the best scorer in the draft, would be the perfect backcourt partner. His incredible athleticism would pair well with the more deliberate Hayes, and his score-first mentality wouldn’t be an issue next to a more traditional point guard. With Green’s ability to run around screens and shoot from anywhere on the floor, he could eventually average 25-plus points per game even with Hayes dominating the ball.
If the Pistons want to go big, Mobley fits with everyone in Detroit. He’s just as special as Cunningham; he’s a 7-footer with a rare combination of size, athleticism, and basketball IQ. He was the Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman, averaging 16.4 points on 57.8 percent shooting, 8.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.9 blocks per game. Mobley is only scratching the surface of his potential. He’s an elite rim protector who can defend all five positions, score from anywhere on the floor, and pass the ball as well as any big man not named Nikola Jokic. He would form an excellent pick-and-roll combination with Hayes, and be a good frontcourt partner for Isaiah Stewart, the no. 16 pick in last year’s draft. Stewart has the strength to guard bigger 5s, which would allow Mobley to be a perimeter defender, and each has the passing and shooting ability to play off the other on offense.
But as for the case of Cunningham, it is not every day that you get the chance to select a natural point guard who stands at 6-foot-8. A lengthy point guard who can do almost everything, including being effective without the ball, Cunningham is a generational talent that teams are craving to have.
Cunningham, who played college ball for the Oklahoma State Cowboys last season, produced an all-around stat line of 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks per contest. His shooting percentages were also off the charts as he shot a 43% overall clip from the field, a 40% clip from beyond the arc, and an 84% clip from the free throw line. His turnovers count were a bit high, but that is a learning curve for a young point guard like him.
But of course, there is always a question of whether Cunningham can eventually be a great superstar. Yes, he can do almost everything but can he actually great at what he does? In a separate column that he wrote for The Ringer, Tjarks pointed out that Cunningham already looks like a veteran in the way that he moves and thinks on both ends of the court. Aside from the excellent things that he does on offense, Cunningham can also be good on the defensive end of the floor.
However, it is also true that Cunningham does not possess elite athleticism. He is also not that assertive in what he does on offense, so there is also the question about his hunger and thirst for winning games.
The interesting thing about his style of play is that he doesn’t assert himself as much as you might expect given his reputation or the fact that he averages almost twice as many points as OSU’s second-leading scorer. He’s a deliberate player who spends huge chunks of the game methodically probing his way into the paint and then making the extra pass to teammates who can’t do much with the ball. It can be frustrating to watch on a team without as much talent as Team USA.
Part of the issue is that Cunningham isn’t a great athlete. He can’t just blow by defenders in one step. He needs time and space to get into his moves, and depends on size, rather than speed, to create separation. One reason he’s so good in the pick-and-roll is that the screen gives him the room to maneuver in ways that he can’t always create on his own. That lack of athleticism won’t doom the Oklahoma State star at the next level, because basketball is much more than a running and jumping contest. It just removes a lot of his margin for error. Cunningham is wired like a traditional point guard in that he doesn’t look for his own shot until crunch time. But because he can’t get around people he often ends up taking contested jumpers off the dribble when he does.
But even if he does not possess a high level of athleticism, his excellent instincts for making the right plays and the right passes will cover up for that weakness of his game. Just look at Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic, who now has two All-Star appearances in the three years that he has been in the league. Even before he was drafted, there were already concerns about how Luka can physically fare in the NBA. He is a point guard who does not have a great burst of speed, and he does not jump through the roof.
But right from his first day in the NBA, Luka showed that his special feel for the game will help him get what he wants on the offensive end of the floor. The timing in his passes is always on-point, and he gets to anywhere on the court with his deceptive ball-handling and his particular ability to create separations from all kinds of defenders.
Having said that, Cunningham also shares the same sentiments and advantages that Luka has. It is already a fact that Cunningham is a better defender and a better spot-up shooter than Luka, although the former’s ability to really create his own shots may still be a question that he has to answer real fast. If the Pistons will indeed select him with the first overall pick in the upcoming draft, it is without a doubt that the team will also rely on him to score the ball. While it is true that facilitating and setting the right players are his main abilities, it will also be a fact that he will be a go-to-guy for a rebuilding squad like the Pistons.
As per Tjarks, Cunningham’s jumper is already a fluid one. It is now a question of how he can create his own shots, especially over the stronger, quicker, and smarter defenders in the NBA.
Cunningham’s jumper has bailed him out of some tough spots this season. He has been lights out from the perimeter: 42.9 percent from 3 on 4.5 attempts per game, and 84.6 percent from the free throw line on 5.4 attempts per game. The issue has been his efficiency from 2-point range. He’s shooting only 42.9 percent on 2s on 9.6 attempts per game. Those are the shots that he would probably prefer to turn into passes, but they are also the ones that he will have to take as a first option in the NBA.
The gold standard for the type of offensive player that Cunningham can become is Luka Doncic. Doncic, like Cunningham, is a big (6-foot-7) point forward without elite athleticism. The difference is that Doncic is a career 54.1 percent shooter from 2-point range in the NBA. He’s a gifted scorer with the footwork and touch to score with defenders draped on him. That ability, in turn, attracts so much defensive attention that it creates open shots for everyone else. Cunningham may have to find different ways to be effective. He’s a better two-way player and spot-up shooter than Doncic, and can help his team win even when he’s not dominating the ball.
Along with Cunningham and Mobley, the other elite prospects in the upcoming draft are composed of Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs, Davion Mitchell, Scottie Barnes, Kai Jones, Keon Johnson, Franz Wagner, Corey Kispert, Jalen Johnson, Moses Moody, James Bouknight, Jaden Springer, Josh Giddey and Jonathan Kuminga.
Outside the lottery, names that could be selected are Ziaire Williams, Usman Garuba, Sharife Cooper, Chris Duarter, Cam Thomas, Isaiah Jackson, Tre Mann, Greg Brown, Joel Ayayi, B.J. Boston, Ayo Dosonmu, J.T. Thor, Roko Prkacin and Alperen Sengun.