Cade Cunningham, the Detroit Pistons‘ No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, got off to a rough start in his rookie campaign. An ankle injury sidelined the guard for most of training camp and the Pistons’ first four games. Then, when he did get on the court he couldn’t make a shot.
Cunningham had the lowest-scoring debut for a top overall pick since Anthony Bennett, putting up just two points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field against the Orlando Magic. It didn’t get much better over the next few games. He went 7 of 39 from the field in his first three games, to record the worst shooting percentage of any rookie with at least 30 attempts through three games since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976.
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Sure, that’s a fairly specific set of numbers, but it makes the point clear. This being the year 2021 and social media being social media, it led to some outlandish criticism. So much so that Cunningham admits he was hearing the noise. Via his rookie diary in The Undefeated:
I didn’t pay too much attention to what was being said after I had a slow start. I wasn’t going to let it beat me up or change my way of thinking. But I definitely knew what was being said, and I tried to move accordingly. I feel like somebody would be a liar if they said they didn’t know what was being spoken of them. But at the same time, I’m not basing how I think off these other people’s opinions from the outside. I’m the kind of person that every day is going to get better, and I think that’s why I had a quick turnaround.
A lot of people were trying to say I was a bust. I thought that was pretty funny in my eyes. That’s something I took note of. Like: ‘All right. Well, we’ll have to see about it.’ That caught my eye. I wasn’t doing no tripping. I’m not going to say I respected that, but I definitely heard it.
Just like Cunningham himself, most serious analysts and fans of the game were never actually concerned. And since that slow start he’s shown why he was the consensus No. 1 pick for months leading up to the draft.
Over his last seven games, Cunningham is averaging 16 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game. And while his shooting is still a bit underwhelming — 41.1 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from 3-point land — it’s vastly improved from his first few games.
During that stretch he’s also made history by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to have a game with 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and five made 3s. Later on, he went for 13 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in that dramatic game against the Los Angeles Lakers to become the youngest player in Pistons history to record a triple-double.
Cunningham was the first pick because of his ability to impact the game in every single area, while also making those around him better. That’s why his slow shooting start was never a big deal, and why he’s going to have a long and successful career in the league.
Through the first month of the season he’s fourth in scoring, fourth in rebounding, second in assists and first in steals among all rookies. Meanwhile, the Pistons are 0-5 without him and 4-7 when he’s in the lineup. And that’s without even playing all that well early on. Just imagine how it will look when he really gets going.