This column serves as Part 1 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft.” Part 2 will come on Wednesday, spotlighting another top prospect and unveiling another team’s projected pick before Thursday’s first round mock debuts.
No. 1, Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
After one of the NBA’s best drafts in 2020, the Pistons found luck in 2021 by winning the lottery and being in position to select Cunningham, who’s long been the No. 1 prospect on the Hub’s board and on many boards dating back to when he was in high school.
That recognition comes with good reason. Cunningham is potentially generationally – his prospectus is the fourth-best we’ve seen since 2010, after Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic. Cunningham is that good.
It starts with his size. At 6’8, Cunningham has an immense feel for the game and can make any pass in the book. His height allows him to pass out of contested drives to the rim and throw dimes at angles few else can. In the pick and roll, Cunningham’s size makes him possible to guard when he attacks the rim, and gives him an added advantage when making the pass to the roll man.
Cunningham’s ability to create his own shot is also incredibly developed. He doesn’t miss as a shooter, although his percentage from deep will likely decrease in his early NBA years before rising back up again. His size allows him to bully guys when driving and punish smaller guards with short wingspans when pulling up. He’s not an amazing ball-handler given how special his passing is, but his knockdown shooting and frame can make up for that in the short term.
With so much hype and skill, it’s fair to wonder whether Cunningham can reach the ceiling pegged for him. Perhaps the most indicative indicator of that resides in just how much Cunningham did for Oklahoma State this past year. None of his teammates were close to NBA-level prospects, and none of them will likely be in the future. Opponents swarmed Cunningham defensively and helped off his teammates in an ultra-aggressive way. Yet, Cunningham still rallied to the Cowboys to an NCAA Tournament berth, put up impressive numbers and cemented his status as the best player in his class.
Given his point guard traits, Cunningham may seem like an odd fit next to Detroit’s second-year guard Killian Hayes, who the Pistons took No. 6 overall in 2020. But the beauty of a player like Cunningham is his versatility on the offensive end. Need a point guard? Great, Cunningham is your guy. Have one and need scoring next to him? Cunningham’s projects as a No. 1 offensive option in an offense in addition to his passing ability. Both guard spots full? Cunningham’s 6’8 frame and lights-out shooting makes him a fit on the wing, and his passing comes as an added and perhaps overqualified bonus. He’s the perfect tall, ball-dominant wing every NBA team craves.
On top of all of that, Cunningham is already a valuable defender off the ball thanks to his lengthy frame, and could develop into an on-ball pest with more effort and development.
We’ve seen this type of player fail before – AKA Markelle Fultz in 2017. Fultz projected as the offensive hub and creator Cunningham is, and played for a struggling college team. Cunningham has extra height on Fultz though, and plays the game at his own pace – something that Fultz’s struggled with on the court and off it coming into the draft. Additionally, Cunningham’s a better passer, has more feel and will have to purposely try not to make an impact defensively given his size. The same could not be said for Fultz.
Detroit has seemingly rebuffed offers from Houston at No. 2 overall and Oklahoma City at No. 6 overall to move up. The Pistons are smart to do this, given that Cunningham is a potentially generational player. But Oklahoma City has a lot of ammo, and Detroit would be smart to strangle them with picks until they tap out. The Thunder likely have their cut-off point, and it’s probably not enough for Detroit to give in.