Cade Cunningham missed the first four games of his rookie season with an ankle injury, and it showed in a disappointing debut for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. The former Oklahoma State star made only one field goal on his way to a two-point outing. Meanwhile, he was blocked twice as many times, both in a single possession, by Orlando Magic wing Terrence Ross. On one second-half 3-point attempt, he even hit the side of the backboard.
All told, it was the lowest-scoring debut for a No. 1 overall pick since Anthony Bennett put up only two points in his 2013 opener. According to ESPN’s Eric Woodyard, Cunningham is now only the 10th No. 1 pick to score two or fewer points in their first game. Greg Oden, Yao Ming and Doug Collins were held scoreless, while Bennett, Andrea Bargnani, Kwame Brown, Kent Benson, LaRue Martin and Cazzie Russell were also held to two points apiece.
Yet in the end, the Pistons walked away with a 110-103 victory over the Magic. Detroit won the 19 minutes Cunningham played by a point. As underwhelming as his scoring numbers were, they weren’t the only reason Detroit picked him No. 1. Cunningham showed far more of his all-around game in the loss than most rookies do in their debuts, finishing with seven rebounds, two assists and a block. That block, a come-from-behind swat of fellow top rookie Jalen Suggs, was a testament to his rare athletic gifts.
Cunningham called his defensive play “solid” after the game, but that’s a bit modest for what was his biggest contribution to the win. His persistence on this play, for example, caused a shot-clock violation.
With his ankle surely still bothering him and an adjustment period against NBA defenses coming, it might be a little while before he scores for the Pistons as well as he did in college. His combination of size, athleticism and basketball IQ is going to make him a high-end ball-handler and attacker eventually, but no two rookies develop at the same pace. That is especially true of point guard and point forwards, who have to command offenses against defenses far more sophisticated than what they are used to. The Pistons, in the thick of a rebuild, don’t need Cunningham to be LeBron James offensively quite yet.
They drafted him to be the total package, and we caught glimpses of that against the Magic. It’s not especially complicated. Give a 6-8 forward with a seven-foot wingspan the basketball IQ of a point guard and the speed of a cornerback and he’s going to be a major asset from Day 1. That was literally true in Cunningham’s case, and it salvaged what could have been a disastrous opening night of his professional career. He might have room to grow on one end of the floor, but on the other, he already looks like a seasoned veteran.