While the 2022 NBA Draft is an important step in the Detroit Pistons’ rebuilding effort, last year’s draft day outcome proved to be the one that put the franchise on a more comfortable path forward.
Detroit has its man, in the form of a 6-foot-6 ball handler who can score in a variety of ways despite lacking great athleticism. Cade Cunningham is the face. The former No. 1 pick is who the Pistons will build this thing around. Detroit, shortly after determining that it needed to change direction as an organization, landed the player who could lead it for more than a decade.
The hardest part is already done.
Now, the franchise is tasked with finding quality players to surround their potential star player. That shouldn’t be a problem considering Cunningham’s versatility as a player who can make any adjustment seem at least feasible. However, adding quality players who best complement Cunningham is what will make the Pistons relevant again sooner rather than later.
In this year’s draft class, Detroit’s options with the No. 5 pick have attractive qualities that should work together with Cunningham. For more than one reason or another, it’s easy to imagine Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, Iowa’s Keegan Murray, Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe or Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin fitting in nicely alongside Cunningham. On the flip side, though, they all also have attributes that could lead to a less-than-optimal fit alongside the Pistons star.
Here, we’re going to look at each prospect and the qualities in their games that do and don’t make them a good offensive fit alongside Cunningham.
If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs and you’re praying that Cunningham has a turnmate of mine like the Celtics have in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Ivey presents the biggest advantage of these prospects in that regard. The 6-foot-4 combo guard was a dynamic scorer with the Boilermakers, ranking in the 80th percentile in isolated cases, according to Synergy. He has an explosive first step and attacks the rim as if he had upset his little sister. Additionally, Ivey was a good shooter from above last season, shooting 35.5 percent from 3-point range, according to Synergy, making him potentially useful when Cunningham starts the offense.
My two biggest concerns with Ivey on the offensive end of the ball are his feel and his nonexistent midrange play. As for Ivey’s feel, he doesn’t make the most advanced pick-and-roll reads. He delivers good passes, but it doesn’t seem like he executes reads that aren’t obvious. Ivey is very dominant on the right side in the pick-and-roll, and when you combine that with his lack of feel, he makes you wonder if he’ll have trouble starting the offense at the NBA level. Cunningham has the potential to be a lethal off-the-ball shooter, and it’s important for Detroit to find a partner who can help him utilize that part of his game. Now onto Ivey’s midrange issues. Of course, the midrange has lost some of its appeal as basketball has progressed.
However, when you get to high-level NBA basketball, all of that goes out the window. Teams need an elite shooter or two who can just get a bucket, no matter where on the floor, as the defense steps up, teams become more familiar with each other and legs get tired. Ivey, to put it bluntly, just wasn’t very efficient in the midrange. Ivey converted on just six of his 27 two-point attempts without paint last season. Is that a real cause for concern? Maybe. Maybe not. It may get better in that regard. However, as I mentioned before, if the Pistons’ ultimate goal is to play basketball in May and June, it would be beneficial for a high-use ball handler like Ivey to be able to score in the middle of the game.
Overall, I like it but I don’t love the fit of Ivey alongside Cunningham. Sure, Ivey offers a combination of elite athleticism and sharp 3-point shooting that’s missing from Detroit’s roster. That might be enough to make him the pick. However, for a player who will likely need to have the ball in his hands to have the most impact, one seriously wonders if Ivey will be able to read the game well enough to reinforce his teammates’ play. Ivey likes to get to the rim, and that’s cool and fun. However, at this level, he will need to be a bit more advanced to reach his full potential.
Murray is the antithesis of Ivey, so it’s easy to understand why Pistons fans found their corners and stayed there throughout the entire pre-draft process.
For all that Murray lacks in terms of athleticism, the Iowa forward more than makes up for it in intelligence. He is a smart player who quickly reads defenses, is an excellent cutter and does a great job of sealing the defender off of him to become an easy target. Murray is a low-maintenance offensive weapon, which is something else Detroit could use on its roster. According to Synergy, Murray ranked in the 85th percentile or better in position and post-up opportunities. Additionally, Murray scored more than a point per possession on cuts and as a roller in pick-and-roll actions. This player archetype would be a good fit in Detroit, especially if you’re a fan of a Cunningham-centric offense. Pick-and-roll action with Cunningham and Murray could be tough to defend. The Hawkeyes often called lob plays for Murray.
Murray might not have the potential star power of Ivey or Sharpe, but he can score from all corners of the floor, in a variety of ways. He may not be the Brown to Cunningham’s Tatum, but did anyone anticipate Khris Middleton becoming a viable No. 2 in Milwaukee?
Murray doesn’t have elite movement and handling, but he does have a low dribble and long strides to go with tremendous body control. Everything about Murray is direct and direct. There is not much flash. It may not be exciting. However, Detroit, as it stands, doesn’t have the most exciting team. Cunningham’s game is not what many would consider “exciting.” Neither is Saddiq Bey’s. Murray is a perfect fit as a prospect who just gets the job done.
Murray can move without the ball and just taking his chances, no matter where they come from, is intriguing. Detroit needs more players willing to diversify the offense with natural movement instincts. If Detroit is confident that Ivey or Sharpe will become stars, they’re probably the pick. If not, Murray’s confidence and diversity make him a great option for Cunningham to have at his disposal.
I’m not going to sit here and act like I have the whole book on Sharpe skipping his only college season. I’ve seen every high school tape I could find, I’ve talked to people in the NBA who have watched him train and rated him over the last couple of years, and I can see the appeal. However, this is not a LeBron James situation where anyone with two eyes and a brain can see that this guy is destined for NBA success.
What stands out most when watching Sharpe is his athleticism. He is a true athlete above the rim who moves gracefully. He also has the creativity you look for in a scorer, with a variety of moves and layup packages to finish in tough situations. He has solid handling and can shoot the ball. He also doesn’t talk enough about his passing. He’s a scorer at heart, but I’ve seen plenty of instances where he made the correct read instead of going for his own bucket. Now, despite all these brilliant qualities, the 6-foot-6 Sharpe, who was a late bloomer both physically and in the world of basketball, showed all of this at the high school level. Many players who have shone at the NBA level were dominant in high school. Any NBA team would be lying if they said taking Sharpe isn’t a gamble.
Due to his limited playing time against top-level competition, I don’t have a good idea how Sharpe would execute the pick-and-roll at the NBA level. I’m not sure if he does advanced reading. The idea of him as an elite shotmaker alongside Cunningham makes sense, but if that doesn’t work out, what else does he bring? I can’t say with confidence at this point.
Once again, if the Pistons are determined to use the No. 5 pick to try to acquire a second star to pair with Cunningham, then Sharpe is worth the money. If there is any doubt that he can get there, it may be better to use that resource elsewhere.
Last but not least, Mathurin, in a traditional sense, is a perfect match alongside Cunningham. He’s a true shooting guard with a college resume that gives testers a better idea of how his game will translate to the next level.
Arizona’s guard, like Murray, is low-maintenance, which means he won’t try to hijack an offense. His game is very direct. Mathurin shot 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in his sophomore year, according to Synergy, and a good number of those shots were tough attempts. If he steps out of line, he descends quickly and with great momentum. He slides. There’s not much dancing in his game, and I like that about him.
Also, I don’t think Mathurin will ever be a top offensive starter in the NBA, but he is an underrated passer and showed some advanced readings last season with the Wildcats. He’s a bit inconsistent and risky in that regard, but the seeds are planted as a high-IQ secondary or tertiary playmaker for an NBA team. Imagine Cunningham executing the pick-and-roll and swinging the ball to the opposite wing at Mathurin, who then runs off the 3-point line, into the paint and finds a wide-open Bey for a 3. I think that that is something. you could see a lot if Mathurin ends up in Detroit because he tends to make the right play and has a good feel for the game.
My biggest concern with Mathurin is his touch around the rim. He gets there and doesn’t shy away from contact, but he didn’t have tremendous final numbers when he jumped trees in college. Of course, that may improve as his body matures and he plays more basketball, but the Pistons have struggled to finish at the hoop as a team in the not-too-distant past.
In general, Mathurin fits perfectly. He doesn’t have the advantage of Ivey or Sharpe, but like Murray, I have no doubt he will be an effective NBA player for a long time. Also, I think he has more advantages as a self-creator on the offensive end than people give him credit for. In my opinion, Mathurin is the perfect combination of the advantages of Sharpe or Ivey and the reliability of Murray.
(Cade Cunningham Top Photo: Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)