The 2021 No. 1 pick just turned 21, and he’s showing maturity and playoff ambition: ‘We can turn the corner’
The Detroit Pistons rookies sang “Happy Birthday,” and danced in celebration of Cade Cunningham’s 21st birthday on Sept. 25 at a private team dinner. There was a birthday cake as usual when it’s a Pistons player’s birthday. There were, however, no presents from the Pistons due to contractual rules.
No, this probably wasn’t the 21st birthday party that Cunningham envisioned. But for this budding Pistons star entering his second season in the NBA, the best present was reaching 21 years of age after the deaths of two close young friends in recent years.
“It’s a blessing that I’m here. To be where I am at this age, that’s a blessing to see 21. It’s fun. Hopefully I’m here for another year and more blessings,” Cunningham told Andscape after a preseason loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Oct. 7.
Said Pistons coach Dwane Casey with a smile: “I heard the day before he had a players’ only [celebration]. I wasn’t invited to that and probably didn’t want to be invited to that.”
The Pistons selected Cunningham with the top pick in the 2021 NBA draft. He started his rookie campaign slowly as he missed training camp, the preseason, and the start of the season with an ankle injury. The former Oklahoma State star averaged 17.4 points, 5.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds in 64 games during the 2021-22 NBA season.
Following the NBA All-Star break, Cunningham lived up to the top pick hype, averaging 21.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists. The Arlington, Texas, native’s season highlight was being named the MVP of the 2022 Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend.
Reflecting on his rookie season, Cunningham said: “It was tough. I wanted to go through training camp. I wanted to go through preseason and get my early feel before the regular season to fill my game out throughout the league and arenas. Sitting there watching helped my game a lot, mentally especially. I feel like there was a lot of things going on in my mind, but it just kept me poised and really helped me learn about myself and how to keep myself steady and be ready for the next day and ready to go.”
Along with Cunningham’s well-rounded game, Casey and Pistons general manager Troy Weaver have been very impressed by his leadership and maturity at 21.
“He is just mature,” Casey said. “He has what few players, like [Miami Heat guard] Kyle Lowry, have in their career. He’s a born leader. Does he make mistakes like other young players? Yes. But he knows it as soon as he does it. He’s a very smart player. He just has ‘it.’ He is not your typical 21-year-old man.
“When you talk to him, you can tell he is very worldly. He knows everything that is going on in the league. That is why I saw he is an old soul. He is not your up-into-everything, up-and-coming young man. It seems like he has been in the league for a long time.”
Said Weaver: “He’s growing as a leader. He’s been a leader because he’s been the best player wherever he’s been. Now, you’re sticking him in a locker room with a bunch of men. Even though we have a young team, he’s going to ascend and be a big-time leader. That is still a work in progress, but he has a lot of poise and maturity for a young guy.”
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So how did Cunningham become so mature so fast?
There were events in his young life that caused him to mature much faster than a normal teenager. Sadly, one reason was two of Cunningham’s close friends died while he was in high school.
“My best friend from elementary school, he passed away my junior year,” Cunningham said. “My senior year, one of my other good friends from junior high and high school passed away. They were 16 and 17. So, 21, it’s a blessing.”
Looking to further his hoop dreams, Cunningham transferred from Arlington Bowie High School (Texas) to basketball power Montverde Academy (Florida) at the age of 16 for his junior and senior seasons. Cyson Wright was a huge Chelsea FC soccer fan who had dreams of being an architect and was one of Cunningham’s best friends. Sadly, Wright died at the age of 16 on Aug. 19, 2018, in Arlington, Texas, while Cunningham was away atr school.
Anthony Strather was a football star at Cunningham’s old high school, Arlington Bowie High School, when he died at the age of 17 about two years ago. Tragically, Arlington police said Strather was shot to death when he tried to break up a fight, according to CBS DFW.
“I had just moved away from home for my junior year, and that happened,” Cunningham said. “And it was tough. I had never really had anybody leave my life until then, so not being around my friend and everything, it was tough. And then in my senior year, it was the day I went on one of my [college] visits [to the University of Washington].
“[Strather was killed] in my neighborhood and my parents were there dealing with it while they had a flight they were supposed to catch to Seattle to meet me at the University of Washington. Crazy stuff went on in my neighborhood and everybody had to help out with that and deal with that. That was a traumatizing time, but to be here now is a blessing. That was in high school. So, to live my dreams is amazing to me.”
Adding to Cunningham’s maturity was becoming a father as a teenager. His daughter Riley was born in 2018 while he was playing basketball at Montverde. One of the reasons Cunningham attended Oklahoma State was to be a four-hour drive from Arlington, where she lives.
Riley lives in Arlington with Cunningham’s parents, and she visits Detroit regularly. Riley was among the family members who were in Detroit to celebrate her father’s 21st birthday.
“I had to grow up. It was a culture shock for me,” Cunningham said. “It shook my world up. So, I knew that everything I did I had to make sure I was taking care of myself and doing the right things because I’ve got somebody that’s watching me and following after me and needs me at the same time. So, I just had to change how I looked at life and how I was going to go about it.
“I have a daughter now. I’ve been through a lot in my young age so I’m just happy to be here and I just take things how they come and try to stay in the moment.”
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Even with Cunningham, veteran forward Jerami Grant was viewed and promoted by the Pistons as the face of the franchise entering last season. The expectation was that in time Cunningham would rise to that perch. That ascension became official for Cunningham on July 6 when the Portland Trail Blazers acquired Grant in a trade.
“He was a big part of our team. Letting him go was something that really changed the locker room but made me have to step up and be ready,” Cunningham said.
The Pistons struggled with youth and injuries last season and won a mere 23 games. Detroit added some notable talent in the 2022 NBA draft: former Purdue star guard Jaden Ivey (No. 5 overall) and the draft rights to former Memphis center Jalen Duran (No. 13). Cunningham is mentoring Ivey.
Detroit added veteran help in Bojan Bogdanovic, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks. The Pistons also have other talented young players to keep an eye on in Saddiq Bey, Marvin Bagley III, and Isaiah Stewart. Bagley injured his right knee in a preseason game Tuesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but following an MRI there’s relief he avoided a serious injury and will only miss time to start the season, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
So how far can this Pistons team go this season? Cunningham is talking playoffs.
“We can turn the corner,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in here, a lot of depth. We’re coming together more and more each day. We’re figuring each other out more. It’s an exciting time for us. But the league is tough. The league ain’t easy. So, we’re just taking it day by day and trying to get better each day.
“If we do that, then playoffs are our goal. We’re trying to get into playoffs and really just see where we can go.”
Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.
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