‘His voice is always in our ears’ – Cade’s lost season is not wasted

Cade Cunningham spent all but a few weeks of his sophomore season almost completely out of the public eye, but behind the scenes something pretty remarkable was taking place. While injured, undergoing surgery and rehabilitating the stress fracture of his tibia, Cunningham not only remained fully engaged with his teammates, but cemented his status as their undisputed leader.

“Leader is an understatement for that guy, man,” said Jalen Duren, who spent his rookie season as the NBA’s youngest player and turns 19 at the end of November 2022. “Since day one, he’s just been somebody you can lean on up. Of course it hurt us when he went down, but his voice was always there.”

When Cunningham’s injury was diagnosed and a month later he made the decision to opt for surgery — a safer remedy, but one that wiped out all but the first 12 games of his season — Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver stated that their faith in Cunningham’s character would allow him to use the time away to his advantage. And that’s exactly what happened.

“I learned more about my teammates than anything else,” Cunningham said after the season ended. “Being able to watch them through so many games and remove myself from actually being on the field and locking in to what the defense is doing, having so much time to sit back and watch, I’ve learned a lot about my team. It will definitely help me in the future.”

Players often conduct their rehabilitation away from the team for a number of reasons. Cunningham felt it was critical, given the Pistons’ youth, to be a constant presence. He would get his rehab, but watch drills. Almost all ended with Cunningham and Casey or Cunningham and Weaver engaging in deep conversations.

“He picks up a lot,” Casey said after the season. “He sees everything. He sees everything and has a smart opinion on every situation. That’s really helped him, I’m sure. He learns what other players do, other teams’ philosophies, other players’ tendencies by watching them distance. That’s why I engage him as much as possible after practice, before the game, during the shootaround – to make sure he’s on top of it. And he is.”

It was a critical next step in Weaver’s Pistons restoration project. It was a move NBA veteran Kelly Olynyk had anticipated at the end of Cunningham’s rookie season.

“I know some vets here who want to talk, but he’s got to do it. It’s got to be his job,” Olynyk, traded to Utah for Bojan Bogdanovic before the 2022-23 season, said then. “We’re here to support everyone and give our wisdom and two cents and we speak when it needs to be said. This is Cade’s room. That’s what we need from him – as a point guard, as a leader, as the future of Detroit and the Pistons. That’s what he has to do and he wants to do it. The sooner he can get to it, the better.”

Cunningham embraced the responsibility placed upon him and seamlessly assumed the mantle of leadership. There was never much doubt that it would happen. Leadership comes naturally to Cunningham. It was perhaps the ultimate tiebreaker for Weaver as he considered options with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft from a talented field that included Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes. They had all been on USA Basketball’s junior team together. Cunningham also emerged as the clear alpha of these groups.

“We said we needed a leader,” Weaver said after Cunningham’s rookie season. “For him to come through the door at 19 years old, have a voice and show his leadership qualities this year … huge. He’s a link because of his leadership.”

When Weaver manipulated the 2022 draft to walk away with two lottery picks in Jaden Ivey and Duren, Cunningham made sure to put his arms around them.

“His voice, from day one, his voice was a factor. It wasn’t his game. It wasn’t whether he could put the ball in the basket,” Ivey said. “It was his voice and how he communicated with us. We live off that. We get energy from that.”

With Cunningham sidelined, Ivey was forced to grow up in a hurry, taking on many of the duties on the field that would have been Cunningham’s province. No one was more instrumental in giving Ivey the confidence and perspective to carry this burden without having his confidence shaken.

“I think the biggest thing he put into perspective is just playing together,” Ivey said. “Play hard for the guys and leave it out there on the floor. Coming in as a rookie, I was able to talk to him myself during plays and timeouts. I was able to see what I could do better. He would give me those tips, those clues, how to figure out how to get better and how to take things game by game. That really helped me a lot as I went through the season.”

“His voice is always in the dressing room. His voice is always in our ears,” Duren said. “For me, for sure, and (Ivey) coming in as a freshman, he always gave us advice and walked us through everything. When he wasn’t on the floor, we didn’t lose a step with him in his voice and his look. He was always around. It’s just a testament to who he is as a person. He’s a guy who just loves to work. He’s a guy who’s a leader at heart. That’s just who he is. “

So respected is Cunningham, Duren went to him after the season and asked what Cunningham would like to see from him for their future success.

“I talked to him a lot about what you see in my game. What can I get better at? And he emphasized that, ‘Yo, we need you in the best shape possible.’ I tried to make it one of my biggest things.”

If Ivey harbored any doubts outsiders had about how he and Cunningham would get along, they evaporated very early in their relationship. Cunningham was welcoming and encouraging from their first interactions. And it took one possession of the regular season for Ivey to become convinced of their future.

“From day one, I knew we would have a good feel for each other,” he said. “The Orlando game (to open the regular season), the first bucket he drove from the corner came to the basket and he made a play. I cut and read his eyes and I knew he was going to the basket . I got a cut and he threw the ball to me and we got a layup. Our first game together. From that point on, I knew we were going to figure it out and play together for a long time. I believe that. Now it’s just about getting him healthy, getting the guys together and just playing.”

As confident as Weaver was about Cunningham’s rare ability to elevate the level of play of those around him when he drafted him No. 1 two years ago, he’s just as confident that Cunningham will reverse the disappointment of missing nearly his entire second season in his favor.

“I think this year is probably going to really turn his career around because he’s in the learning process,” Weaver said. “He’s such a great competitor and mental giant, but the young players learning process, that’s how you step into your greatness. A lot of young players early in their careers had injuries and it made them better, whether (Joel) Embiid, Blake Griffin, a lot of those guys didn’t play the first or second year, and it drove them forward. I think the same will happen with Cade. He will have no problem fitting in at all. I expect him to be full blast when the time comes.”

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