Not many players take over as team leader in their rookie season, but that is exactly what Cade Cunningham did for the Detroit Pistons last year from the moment he was drafted.
Even though he still can’t legally buy a beer, Cunningham is the unquestioned leader of the team, a guy who takes the reins in the huddle, motivates his teammates and sets a positive example.
It’s one of the reasons the Pistons drafted him first overall in the 2021 draft even though there were many compelling options.
Those include guys like Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes (who both finished higher than Cade in the Rookie of the Year voting), as well as Jalen Green, Franz Wagner and Josh Giddey, who all had strong seasons for their respective teams.
But Cunningham was ranked higher than all of them in ESPN’s recent top-100 rankings, coming in 35th, the highest in his draft class. Even though some of these other players had more team success or similar stats, there is one quality that sets Cade apart, and that is leadership.
Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham is a leader
The Pistons were looking for someone to build around, and Cade Cunningham has proven he can be that guy, as he came in right away and cemented himself as the unquestioned leader of the team.
This isn’t a slight to any of those other guys, but they all played complementary roles for their teams last season and were not the guys leading the huddle, getting into teammates faces and leading by example like Cunningham was.
This is what assistant coach Rob Murphy said on a recent episode of “The Pistons Pulse” podcast:
"“Some guys become leaders, and some guys are born leaders,” Murphy said. “Cade Cunningham is a born leader, he’s a connector. He does everything by example and he’s also able to communicate and teach guys on the fly as well. You have guys like Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, some guys that when they hit the floor, guys just follow. And Cade Cunningham has been one of those guys. As good of a player that he is, he’s equally the same type of connector and leader, which bodes well for us because any time coach can have someone on the floor that can lead on the floor and get the message to the guys that guys are willing to follow, and also when you’re off the floor, he’s great at communicating and being a great teammate as well.”"
Being compared to Magic, Kidd and Mark Jackson is high praise, especially for a guy who has only played one year in the league. This is the quality that sets Cade Cunningham apart from his peers (for now), as he is a guy other players listen to and follow, which is exactly what you want from your star player.
Cunningham has also embraced this role with the city, and knows that there is more to being a superstar than just what you do on the court, again showing maturity and leadership beyond his years.
Cade is more than just stats, he has some intangible qualities that could be the difference between a very good player and a great one.