HOUSTON — Dwane Casey made sure to speak with Cade Cunningham before the Pistons faced the Rockets in Houston on Wednesday night.
A November game between two downtrodden franchises doesn’t signal a marquee matchup on its face, but Wednesday’s battle of non-contenders marked one of the most anticipated contests of the season’s first month. The fifth game of Cunningham’s career also served as the first referendum on his selection as the 2021 draft’s top pick.
“We mentioned to him this morning that everyone wants to make this Cade vs. [Jalen] Green,” Casey said pregame. “We need to make sure it’s Pistons vs. Rockets. If we do anything other than that we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”
“Cade’s played in plenty of big games. ... He keeps it on an even keel.”
Cunningham was able to hide any internal jitters as he squared off against Houston rookie and No. 2 pick Jalen Green. The Oklahoma State product was in control of Detroit’s attack from the outset on Wednesday, snaking through a pick-and-roll before pinging the ball to an open shooter in the corner on Detroit’s first possession. The play was emblematic of why Cunningham drew such a crowd of admirers before the draft. Green’s generational athleticism jumps off the screen. Cunningham’s brilliance lies in its subtlety. He keeps defenders on his back with ease, and his eyes seem simultaneously focused on both rolling bigs and stationary perimeter threats. The comparisons to Luka Dončić as a playmaker aren’t totally unfounded.
Casey has given Cunningham the keys to Detroit’s proverbial car. The franchise looks to be in good hands following Wednesday’s 112–104 win.
“The bigger the moment, the better he plays,” Casey said. “He’s got that gene. Some guys just have it, where they can command the ball and make plays in crunch time and special situations. You feel comfortable with him doing that, it’s one of the reasons we drafted him.”
Cunningham’s ability to control the game in the halfcourt was his calling card out of Stillwater. Wednesday night featured a more encompassing account of his talents.
Detroit’s rookie made a notable defensive impact against Houston–his greatest area of improvement entering the NBA–ending the night with two steals, one block, numerous deflections and a key charge taken in the fourth quarter. And down the stretch, Cunningham finally showcased his scoring prowess. He answered a Kevin Porter Jr. three with a triple of his own with 4:37 remaining, and his driving layup with 1:50 gave him 20 points on the evening.
Wednesday night wasn’t enough to solidify Cunningham as the top player in his class; Cleveland's Evan Mobley and Toronto's Scottie Barnes are the leaders in the clubhouse in that respect. But each game seems to feature a more comfortable Cunningham, one similar to the freshman sensation we watched at Oklahoma State. Bumps in the road will invariably come. Cunningham appears ready for the process.
“Each game I’m feeling a little more pep in my step, I’m feeling more comfortable,” Cunningham said. “It’s about being consistent. I don’t want to be way up one day and way down the next. If I can stay like that, this season will be just fine.”
Green wasn’t as placid on Wednesday despite receiving his own pregame chat from Rockets director of player development John Lucas. The former G League Ignite star challenged Detroit center Isaiah Stewart at the rim on Houston’s first possession, and he sought a 1-on-1 dance against Cunningham on numerous occasions. The exuberance brought a mixed bag.
Green finished the night just 8-of-20 from the field and 3-of-11 from three, though despite the warts, Wednesday night featured a frankly electric performance from Green. He finished the night with 23 points, including 12 in a dazzling third quarter, and his full array of talents was on display despite the loss. Green’s speed is reminiscent of a young John Wall. Houston’s rookie is perhaps the best leaper in the game today, and we could very well see him win the dunk contest in February. A long season could await in Houston. Green’s best moments–like Wednesday’s drive and slam over Cunningham–provide the greatest reason for optimism surrounding the franchise.
“His speed and his athleticism is unmatched,” Lucas said. “And the thing that is reality improving fast is his basketball IQ. The important part is finding that steady growth.”
The optimism emerging from both Detroit and Houston could dim in the coming months. The Rockets are hurtling toward the top of the lottery, more than willing to shell out plenty of minutes to the 21-year-old Porter and a pair of 19-year-olds in Green and Alperen Şengün. As for the Pistons, a more competitive roster may not necessarily breed decidedly different results. Detroit exits Monday night still just 2–8 in 2021-22, with an improving defense hamstrung by the league’s worst offensive rating. Even the play-in feels like a long shot for these two teams this season.
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We'll save our worrying over the dregs of the season for a later date. Wednesday night provided a window into the NBA’s future, with a budding rivalry potentially emerging between the two highly-touted rookies. After flashes of greatness on Wednesday, an NBA education awaits.
“These guys have a lot to learn, a lot to improve on,” Casey said. “Tonight was a start.”
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