Cade Cunningham is Ready to Lead the Pistons Back to the Glory Days
It’s a late April afternoon, and Cade Cunningham is sitting on a black leather couch inside a sunny, white-walled studio in Los Angeles for his SLAM cover shoot. He’s in the midst of explaining what “Detroit vs Everybody” really means to him. It was already a thing, he says, when he arrived last summer as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and at first, he didn’t really understand what it meant. But when he tweeted the Motor City’s rallying cry in April, having just finished his rookie season, he wanted to make it clear to everyone in Detroit that he fully understands it now.
“I just wanted to let the city know [that] I’m fully behind the message. I think the team is [too], at the same time. We’re trying to bring Detroit back on top in the sports world because that’s what we control, but Detroit got a lot of things going on. I think the city’s gonna continue to grow.”
Moments earlier, Cunningham was dripped out in a furry, fire-engine red Des Pierrot coat, his Pistons City Edition uniform and a blinged out gold chain while posing for his cover. He was hip to the Detroit scene long before his arrival: he started listening to Detroit rap in high school, from 42 Dugg to Sada Baby, Babyface Ray and Veeze. He messes with the movies heavy, too. “I don’t know if you know about Buffed Up. It’s a little movie. Tough! See, I can put y’all on, fam! Y’all gotta watch McGraw Ave.”
It’s crazy to think that there was a time, especially in the beginning, when many doubted Cunningham’s potential in the League. The hype was real coming in. As a senior in high school, he averaged 13.9 points and led Montverde Academy to a 25-0 record. At Oklahoma State, he averaged 20.1 ppg and led the Cowboys to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite the Pistons’ struggles this season, the 20-year-old rookie didn’t shy away from the moment.
Some might have questioned him at first, but make no mistake now: Cade Cunningham is a certified superstar in the making.
He’s had conversations with Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas about leadership and what it takes to bring a team together. He’s well aware, too, of what it’ll take to earn respect.
“I think the biggest thing I learned is that the League, the media, nobody will care until you’re winning,” he tells SLAM. “I could feel bad for myself all I want about [how] people didn’t respect or appreciate the season I had, or anything, but I didn’t win a lot of games. So, I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve locked in on and I decided within. I have to win games if I want people to respect my name, and if not, then I can’t be mad at people not watching enough games and how I really play. That’s the challenge that I’ve tried to take on. I’ve talked to teammates [and] we’re all trying to take that challenge on. I think that’s the next step for us.”
Just a week before our interview, it was announced that his Montverde teammate, Scottie Barnes, had won Rookie of the Year. Cunningham, who led all rookies in scoring (17.4 ppg) and was second in assists (5.6 apg), finished third in voting behind Barnes and Cleveland’s Evan Mobley. He isn’t sweating the outcome, though. “Scottie is my brother, I’m happy that he got that award. I feel like it’s great that it’s him, [my] Montverde teammate. I’m super excited [for him]. I mean, it’s never really been about that award for me. I’ve had a ton of questions asked about it, you know—Rookie of the Year, what do you think about you winning? So, I’ma answer the question, you know? I feel like I should win it. That’s natural. But it was never a knock on those guys. I love their game and I’m happy that now we can quiet that question down. Congrats to Scottie, man, I love my dog.”
Cunningham’s own emergence this season, one which catapulted him into the running for ROY after missing all of the preseason and the first four regular season games due to an ankle injury he suffered in training camp, is a conversation worth having. The expectations were very high for him coming in, and while his debut was underwhelming—just 2 points against Orlando, followed by 6 against Milwaukee three nights later—even Pistons head coach Dwane Casey had made it clear during media day that Cade would need some time to get adjusted. Still, the media, and social media, reacted immediately. Some called him a flop and a bust. There were memes and tweets that claimed he should get traded.
“I wanted to take it slow, but at the same time I was so anxious to hurry up and get out there for my first NBA game,” he says in retrospect. “It was a balancing act, [and] I think it was something that was definitely a lesson learned as far as who I am and my body. It taught me a lot of patience, for sure. I dreamed of being in the NBA, and to have my first game be a bit of a tease from me, like, You can’t play yet. But when it did come, I felt like all of that stuff was behind me.”
He was well aware of what people were saying about him. When he became the first Pistons rookie to put up a double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) in just his third career game, joining the elite company of Grant Hill and Isiah Thomas as the only Pistons rooks to do so, everyone had something to say about how he was shooting 17.9 percent from the field at the time. The reality was that, in the beginning, he was just as hard on himself.
“I think I was bothered with myself more than anything, just because I wasn’t playing the way that I had expected myself to play, where I dreamt of coming into the NBA and playing. Everybody comes in and dreams of dropping 35 in their first game and everybody’s shocked. You know, everybody dreams of that. Whenever I got into the League and I played and that didn’t happen—I scored one bucket my first game—you just kind of take it for what it is and then move on. Hope that things get better. Not even hope but make sure that they do.”
His teammates, coaches and family continued to reassure him that he was straight. Keep going, keep pushing, they’d tell him. Keep being aggressive. He put up 17 points against Brooklyn in November, showing off his court vision and shot-making ability, and earning props from Kevin Durant, who has known him since high school. The narrative was starting to shift. Headlines went from calling him on the “wrong side of history” and “struggling early” to suggesting that he could take over for Detroit. A week later, he had 25/8/8 and hit five threes against the Kings to become the youngest player (20 years, 51 days) in League history with that stat line.
“I think anybody that says, I didn’t hear it, that’s cap,” Cunningham says. “But, I try not to put too much weight on [it] whenever I’m playing well, and everybody’s praising me—the same way as I try not to put too much weight around when people are hating, because at any time you have a good game, people are gonna love [you and] when you have a bad game, people are gonna hate you. You can’t put too much of your feelings into that, the Twitter game, Instagram, whatever it is, because it’s not gonna help me on the court. I just tried to lock into what the locker room needed, what they wanted. I think just keeping my mind in the right place allowed me to end up turning the corner.”
Rather than get caught up in the outside noise, good or bad, he looked inward. Cunningham, who has been practicing yoga since last summer, is big on meditation. He does it daily, even multiple times a day, but it really started as something he did before games. “I think it’s really helped me. Anytime that I feel like I need to kind of reset, I can do it in the moment a little bit.
“In some of these instances, it feels like there’s really nothing you can do to fully take it off—the anxiety of going into a big game,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s impossible to relieve that. But, I mean, that’s what we asked for. That’s what I asked for, to be in the NBA, to be in these moments. I try not to just completely shy away from those times, where I’m like, you know, my head is all over the place. And you know what happens whenever you go into games feeling like that, so, just trying to tune that stuff out. And then, like I said, just locking in to who I am and being unapologetic about what I look like out there.”
Even during a 14-game losing stretch, the 6-7 guard continued to show flashes of his potential. A triple-double, his career’s first, against the Lakers, 26 points against Portland, 28 against OKC. The losing not only tested him and the team, but looking back, he says it will only prepare them moving forward.
“What we [were] going through in that time, mentally, emotionally, having to get through that and overcome that, as a team, I feel like that’ll set us up for [dealing with] the adversity that we’ll run into in the future. I had never went through anything like that, losing. I feel like it taught me a lot about myself and how I can lock back in and get back on the right track.”
The wins, few as they were, did start to come. He was clutch in an upset against the Celtics, dropping 20 points and helping deliver a crucial block on Jaylen Brown in the final seconds to end Boston’s nine-game winning streak. He pulled up to All-Star Weekend and won MVP of the Rising Stars Game. In March, the Pistons went on a three-game winning streak, their first in three years. Even after a loss to the Nets, Cade matched his own career-high of 34 points. When a reporter pointed out the Pistons’ struggles to KD, he clapped back. “What do you mean, a team like Detroit?” Durant asked. “I know their record isn’t good, but they’ve still got pros over there.” He had some more words about Cade, too. “When you got a 6-7 point guard, it’s a good start…Somebody that can wreck a whole defensive game plan with his size, his talent, his skill…I could see this team being a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
Legends have shown him love. The whole city is rockin’ with him. The excitement is building around not only the team, but Cunningham as the face of the franchise. He has a few things planned this offseason as he trains for year 2: taking care of his body, getting stronger in the weight room and packing on some protein (he’s vegan). He recently took a trip up to Joshua Tree in Cali and plans on taking his daughter Riley to Disney World for the first time. (Riley, who was born during his senior year of HS, loves princesses.) Fatherhood, he goes on to say, has taught him that he’s not just doing this for himself, but for her, too. “I had her in high school and [she] changed my whole lens on life, really,” he says, adding, “I know that I’m doing everything for a greater purpose now.”
And even when he’s felt like it’s Cade versus everyone, he knows that this is just the beginning. The Pistons did put up more wins this season than they have in the past few years, and their young core of Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes all averaged career-highs in their second seasons. Jerami Grant averaged almost 20 ppg. The come-up is real.
“Within, I think it’s me versus everybody, but I got a squad behind me, too. It’s us versus everybody.”
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Portraits by Jonathan Lewis.