Why Pistons centers might be key to Cade Cunningham having breakout year

Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) walks by forward Kelly Olynyk (13) Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) walks by forward Kelly Olynyk (13) Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

A recent statistical deep dive showed Cade Cunningham performed much better when he had a big man who could score. He should, hopefully, have that this season with the Detroit Pistons, so look out.

Cade Cunningham had a very promising first season, as shown by him finishing third in voting for Rookie of the Year (could have been first if Pistons record was not so bad), but it was not without its obstacles.

First, he suffered an ankle injury right before training camp. With Detroit being extra cautious, as they should be, he missed all of training camp, the pre-season games and the first few regular season contests.

Even a talented player like Cunningham, as a rookie, needs time to get acclimated to the rigors and increased level of play of the NBA. He had to do his ‘ramping up’ during the NBA regular season.

Related Story. Why were Detroit Pistons stars in bubble wrap for Summer League?. light

And then … well … you saw them play. The Pistons, ravaged by COVID-19, injuries and players simply not doing as well as expected, were pretty awful most of the season. When everyone was available (and they added athletic center Marvin Bagley III), things went better, going 11-14 at the end.

Now, fully healthy (fingers crossed), with a full training camp and pre-season to prepare, Cunningham should be ready to have a breakout season.

Interestingly, one writer’s statistical analysis thinks the presence of Bagley and Kelly Olynyk will be important factors in Cunningham doing well.

Detroit Pistons’ Cade Cunningham even better with offensive big men

Isaiah Stewart does a lot of things well, but opponents were not terrified of him getting the ball down in the low post. And we do not need to get into the whole ‘Killian Hayes can’t shoot’ thing.

In a very detailed study by Jackson Frank at The Analyst, the fact Cade did not have any real scoring threats to pair with in pick-and-rolls most of the year, hurt his production. If Cunningham was driving to the hoop, the defense could concentrate on stopping him, with no repercussions.

Basically, if Cunningham has no one to pass too, opponents can just close the lane off. If he passed the ball, to who? And what are they going to do with it?

This is not personal observation, but cold hard statistics.

One stat that stood out from Frank was that, in his first 40 games, on his drives to the hoop, Cunningham scored 77.8% of his points unassisted. That meant, most of the time, he brought the ball up and took it to the hole on his own.

Big man help

In the final 24 games, Cunningham’s unassisted drives went down to 70.8%. He also drove to the basket much more (31.5 to 42.2%) since he no longer had every defender eyeballing him.

Now, at the end of the season, the Pistons also had another major weapon in Jerami Grant, who scored 20 points a game playing with Cunningham.

But, the most fascinating fact was how much more of an efficient scorer Cunningham became, when he was on the floor with either Kelly Olynyk or Marvin Bagley III.

Cade Cunningham’s shooting percentage at the rim:

With Kelly Olynyk on the floor: +7.4%

With Marvin Bagley III on the floor: +14.9

Both are nice players but, it’s not like Cunningham got suddenly paired with Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid. However, even though they are very different in style, Olynyk and Bagley each made a major impact on Cade’s game.

Why? It’s simple, the opposing center had to cover them.

WIth his reputation as a sharpshooter, if Olynyk went outside the paint, the center had to follow him. Leaving Kelly Olynyk alone at the three-point line is a big no-no for defenses. Bagley is a major lob threat. If the center moves over to stop Cunningham from driving, he can just throw the ball up near the rim, and Bagley will sky for a high-percentage dunk.

Frank also pointed out that ‘Beef Stew’ got much better setting picks at the end of the season, giving Cunningham more space. And, with his athletic ability, if rookie Jalen Duren develops, he would also become a major lob threat.

Basically, the more talent you surround Cunningham with, the easier it will be for him to find ways to score. If his surrounding cast can stay healthy, he should have a big sophomore season.

Next. Does Marvin Bagley III contract with Pistons look better now?. dark

To read Jackson Frank’s whole article, lots of good breakdowns, you can go here.