DETROIT – Kid Cunningham carries himself as a new player in the NBA, but he doesn’t necessarily play like one. To paraphrase Erica Badu’s soul star, he’s an acting star in a digital world — which could make it difficult to test his nomination for Player of the Year.
He doesn’t overwhelm the game physically, but does apply force in selective moments. There’s a twist and polish in his game that seems more mature than raw, giving a feeling that he’s closer to his roof than his teammates.
He’s been strong in the past four months after a slow start – exacerbated by an ankle injury that forced him to miss training camp and the first week of the season in a team that can’t afford much in the second year of rebuilding.
However, he has succeeded in making believers across the board and has had his share of watershed moments that are a morsel of his potential. Most importantly, in a squad full of youngsters trying to make their mark on the league and secure their individual future, Cunningham has emerged as the undisputed leader for the present and future of the Detroit Pistons.
Cunningham and Evan Mobley of Cleveland and Scotty Barnes of Toronto have a compelling case for winning the award. Mobley has been consistent, especially on defense where most rookies usually struggle and release young Tim Duncan’s feelings. Barnes is a winger for everything that plays bigger than his 6-foot-9 frame and, like Cunningham, jumped after the All-Star break.
Cunningham Mars put him on par with Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the lone rookies with an average of 22 points, five rebounds and seven assists in one month. His best stretches in wins against scorching Cleveland, Toronto and Boston occurred after the All-Star break, which doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
Who is preferred is often based on proximity, or preference since there are no award guidelines. Cunningham plays the hardest and deepest position in the league and has the strongest finish. But there are common sense reasons for Mobley and Barnes, too – even with Mobley rebounding from an ankle injury in late March.
Much of the debate about Mobley and Barnes stems from the groundwork laid upon their arrival. Subtle improvements to Cleveland’s roster were culminated in Mobley’s drafting, enabling them to play more on the flanks to make up for the lack of reduced volume. Fortunately for Mobley, he didn’t suffer from overexposure to playing in the middle due to the presence of Garrett Allen – a perfect position for a perfect player.
Barnes was amazing, and so was Mobley without playoffs. Playing on a team while keeping the bones of a champion lightens the burden of having to be a focal point, or a franchise player carrying everything on broader shoulders day in and day out. It also means that the margin of error is thinner for both than for Cunningham, with the playoff changing location day by day in a competitive Eastern Conference.
History could end by saying that all three are in ideal positions, able both practically and figuratively to thrive in their respective environments and cultures.
For Cunningham, the brainpower required to help revive a proud franchise that needs a face to marry itself — not a dry, but hungry franchise that has been largely on the outside looking inside the NBA talent boom of the past decade — feels beyond the pale for the teenager. The average or even exceptional 20-year-old.
“he owns.’ “Some guys have that gene. They can do it in crucial situations and he’s done it his whole career,” Pistons coach Duane Casey said. “This moment is never too big for him. Thus produces and is not afraid of the moment. You feel comfortable with the ball in his hands.”
Cunningham understands the big picture as well as the smaller ones, and seems to know how to balance assertiveness and leadership without alienating his teammates.
“Taking responsibility early, even if it’s not your fault, is sometimes hard,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd and former Rookie of the Year told Yahoo Sports. “Because the players want to know that you are going to help them protect them or help them. And so you can take that responsibility early on and know that your teammates trust you, then things tend to go really smoothly with yourself. You have to fail first and accept that in front of everyone. Then Everyone will understand that you are the real deal.”
Casey said Cunningham did just that.
“He runs the movie and it takes what I get in movie sessions, my bad coach,” Casey said. “He always takes his faults. He’s not full of excuses. He accepts responsibility. He’s a real leader. Men know Taurus from the truth. He’ll say at rallies, ‘We don’t bounce, we don’t defend.'” I do not defend. He’s the first to point it out.”
How far should he play to win this is Award? By most voting criteria, winning is often the tiebreaker or even the main criteria. There is a fine line between winning over a losing team and simply setting numbers for a team without expectations. External factors seem to dictate winning the presence of more than one person, in most cases.
“He can’t control that we’re rebuilding, we have a lot of sophomores starting and playing the big minutes,” Casey told Yahoo Sports. “We don’t have two superstars like Toronto and Cleveland. It’s not his fault. I hope people won’t judge him for that, because at some point we’ll be in those situations and he’s really going to shine.”
The notable shifts in one season in NBA history can be easily explained. The 1979-80 Boston Celtics won 29 to 61 after drafting Larry Bird, who waited a year after being drafted to remain for another season at Indiana State.
David Robinson was drafted by Spurs in 1987 but had to fulfill a naval commitment for the next two years, becoming a rookie at the age of 24. The score was 56 wins after 21. The most recent example was linked to the same franchise, with Tottenham taking Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft after a disastrous year with Robinson out with injuries.
Duncan interferes with the still stellar Robinson and returns from repair and a 36-win turnaround ensues.
They are all shortlisted for the game’s greatest players, and they all won Rookie of the Year, but these situations are often the exception rather than the rule.
The year Kidd tied for the award, he shared it with Grant Hill in 1995. The Pistons won 28 games – an eight-game improvement over the previous year over Kidd, who led 23 wins from 13 in 1994.
Regardless of who won the award at the time, it was clear that Hill was coming. So was Cunningham.
The one thing that kept him from being the best player on the ground against a desperate Brooklyn Nets was that Kevin Durant pulls off a masterpiece of 41 points, Cunningham offsets 34 points, and six assists that made Durant sing his praises for the second time this season. .
Two days later, Cunningham was the key player in the 102-95 win over Philadelphia 76ers with another 27 points and six assists—helping hold on 37 points and 15 rebounding forces of destruction from Joel Embiid.
The Nets were holding on to positioning play as the 76s entered the evening very close to the second seed in the East – a win that meant so much more to them than the Pistons clearly positioned for what they hope will be their final year in the lottery for the foreseeable future.
Two games, of course, are not an issue. But Cunningham’s second run with the NBA contest appears to have predicted what kind of future he would have: 18.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists since Jan.
Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers warned his players Cunningham isn’t the same player he saw in his third professional game, when he hit only 4 of 17 shots, working his way up to 18 points, 10 rebounds.
“Just watching him in a Brooklyn game, he was in control. Patience, confidence, confidence in his shot,” Rivers said. “Most importantly, you see it in the other players. You have to separate yourself if you want to be cool, like when you’re young you can’t come in and blend in, so why do you guys go after it? As you know, and early he did not separate himself. Now it’s clear.”
Slightly built, his strength is a more subtle magnetism, more competitive fire in selective moments than a blazing inferno for 48. When it explodes, it can catch teammates off guard, but lights up the arena – suggesting a sense of timing that goes beyond just playing, or even playing Basketball winning.
The fluidity in his game hides how he reads, how he moves and what he feels. He understands the importance of the award while also playing a fitting perspective on a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008 – the last time they were a mainstay post-season.
“I think my teammates are kind of looking at this race a little bit as well,” he said. “I’m not too concerned about this race, as far as you know, getting the building blocks, getting the right foundation for next year for the Pistons. But I’m going to keep working. I think I deserve the award. But at the end of the day, it’s a prize.”