'I Am the Best Rookie': 1-on-1 with No. 1 NBA Draft Pick Cade Cunningham

Jason DumasContributor IJanuary 20, 2022

Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

As most first overall picks do, Detroit Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham came into the league with franchise-changing expectations. And history has shown expectations for top draft picks aren't always fair or realistic, but it is the reality for young prospects hyped up since their early teens.

Cunningham has struggled at times and was probably too passive early in the season, but the 20-year-old has found his rhythm recently and believes he's established himself as the favorite in the Rookie of the Year conversation.

"It's definitely a goal of mine. I feel like I am the best rookie," Cunningham told Bleacher Report.

The numbers are slowly starting to back that up, as Cunningham is averaging 15.9 points per game in the month of January to go along with 5.4 assists and 3.4 rebounds—numbers that surely would be higher if not for a questionable ejection against the Suns. But most importantly, he's led a young Pistons team to wins over the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks this month.

Another encouraging stat is how Cade is scoring. According to Second Spectrum Data, he averages more isolation points per game than the likes of Steph Curry, Luka Doncic and Trae Young. And his peers are starting to take notice.

"He's a really good player. He's a guy who came in ready and can do it all. He can score the ball, play-make and defend. Sky is the limit for him," said Golden State Warriors wing and fellow No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.

Cunningham has forced coaches to key in on him on the scouting report.

"He's really emerging now that he has his feet underneath him and getting accustomed to the league. He really seems to be finding his way now," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told Bleacher Report.

Cunningham now finds himself firmly entrenched near the top of the Rookie of the Year race, as most experts have him just behind Evan Mobley but trending up.

Mobley has been phenomenal, and he's drawn comparisons to the likes of Chris Bosh and Pau Gasol. His young Cavs team has blown expectations out of the water and is firmly a playoff contender and could finish in the top four in the East. That can hurt or help his ROY chances depending on your perspective. He won't have the usage that Cade has, but his team's success will be miles ahead of Detroit's.

This has also been one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, and rookies all throughout the draft board are making an impact. Scottie Barnes and Franz Wagner are turning heads because of their all-around games. Chris Duarte looks to be one of the better, if not the best, perimeter scorers in the class.

Cade has jumpstarted a Pistons team that will almost certainly finish near the bottom of the standings but is playing better ball. He is the main reason Detroit has been competitive recently, and he sat down exclusively with Bleacher Report to discuss his first season.


B/R: How has your rookie year been? I know it's a marathon.

José Luis Villegas/Associated Press

Cunningham: It's been a lot of fun. Yes, there are ups and downs in this journey for real, but I'm having fun playing basketball, traveling all over the place. It's been a lot of fun for me. So I'm living the dream.


Have any vets on the team taken you under their wing?

I got Rodney McGruder. ... I got Trey [Lyles] and Josh Jackson. We got a bunch of good vets. We have a young team, so it helps having them around a lot.


You've been playing better as the season goes on; you haven't really hit that rookie wall. You've already played more games in the NBA than you did at Oklahoma State. Do you feel like you're hitting your stride?

I feel like I'm hitting my stride. Like I said, I've had some bad games, but I've had some really good ones, too. I know that it's going to be a bunch of ups and downs, but I just try to stay locked in and even-keeled and approach every game the same and just have fun.


Do things like Rookie of the Year matter to you? Is that a goal of yours?

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

It's definitely a goal of mine. I feel like I am the best rookie. So winning that award would validate that to me and the world, but at the end of the day when I go and play a basketball game, I'm not thinking of Rookie of the Year trophies or anything like that. But it would be great to have when the time comes.


What advice would you give the young up-and-coming prospects? The Chet Holmgrens of the world. Guys who have big-time expectations like you did.

I'd say just be consistent with the work and your approach. It's hard to control how every game is going to look. Sometimes the ball may fall your way, and sometimes it won't. If you can try to get better each and every day and be consistent towards your goals; then you'll be all right.


Here's a fun question. I know you were a good football player, and so was your dad. If you had to bet your NBA paycheck on one player in the league to score a touchdown right now, who would it be?

I'm sure LeBron could have in his day. Anthony Davis. Saddiq Bey would probably score some touchdowns. If I was his quarterback, I would get him the ball in the end zone. I'm sure there's a bunch of guys who can score.


Are you a sneakerhead, and if so, what is your favorite pair of kicks in your collection?

I wouldn't say I am a sneakerhead, but I would say my Rookie of the Year Jordan 1s and then most of the Off-White Dunks.