It’s official: Cade Cunningham is headed to Detroit. After being viewed as the clear-cut No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft for more than a year, no matter which team ended up getting that selection, Cunningham’s journey in the league officially began on Thursday night, when Adam Silver read his name from a podium at the Barclays Center that sealed his future in the Motor City.
The fit’s a fun one — Cunningham joins a Pistons team with plenty of young talent that showed flashes last year, and in theory, he and Killian Hayes have the potential to be one of the league’s most promising backcourts. The pick-and-rolls he’ll be able to run with big man Isaiah Stewart will be a blast, as will the two-man game he develops with Jerami Grant. And when he needs someone to knock down the open looks he’ll generate, Saddiq Bey will surely be more than happy to oblige.
Prior to his selection by the Pistons, Dime caught up with Cunningham to discuss his partnership with Uptime as an Official Brand Ambassador, being vegan, getting ready for the pros, how his high school ball prepared him for this moment, and more.
What do you have going on with Uptime?
With Uptime, so, I just signed a deal them, multi-year deal with them. My first drink company deal, so I’m super excited about that. I love the product, it goes along with me. So yes, it’s a good deal for sure.
I know it’s an energy drink. I am a coffee person, what’s your pitch to me for why I should I should switch Uptime?
There we go, I like that. I like that. So, Uptime is all natural caffeine, non GMO, natural sugars. It was all natural and I feel like every time I’ve drank it, it’s been a good, easy energy for me, but there’s no crash to it. It’s just a good healthy energy and it tastes great. And it’s on the come up, there’s not a lot of people drinking Uptime right now, but I feel like their product is great. I mean, I chug them down, constantly.
I want use that as a lead into asking about taking care of your body. One thing that I’ve read is that you are or were vegan. Are you still doing? I’ve heard it’s something that’s really beneficial for recovery, because like your body isn’t breaking down animal proteins and stuff like that.
I started going into my last year of AAU, and I did it for like two weeks, and then I had to leave to go to Greece, and in Greece we’re eating nothing but McDonald’s, so I’m eating chicken nuggets, I’m eating all these burgers. And I started feeling bad, and during the trip, I was like, “When I get back to the States, I’m straight back vegan.”
Once I started back again, I felt great, and from then on, I think you know all the things that they say about veganism, the benefits and stuff. I’ve experienced pretty much all of those in my own different way, but I feel like just trying something new and being conscious about you eat, that was the main thing that I wanted to do it.
One thing that I always read when someone’s talking to someone coming into the NBA is how getting a guy into a college strength and conditioning program is something that’s invaluable to them. So physically, what’s the biggest difference between pre-college Cade and the guy that I’m talking to today?
Pre-college Cade, I definitely worked on my game. I was serious about the basketball side of things, but I feel like that was the that was mainly it. Like, I was super serious on the court. But I would eat whatever — which is fine, I’m sure there’s a lot of guys that work their butts off on the court and get by. But I felt like once I got to college, that was when I started to really take my body seriously, just take all the other things that go into basketball — your mental health, just trying to expand my game and my body. And really, just better my life, for real. I feel like these are habits that I’ll be able to carry on whenever I’m 60 years old and still have a healthy body.
Let’s talk about your game and let’s start with kind of the generic question: What’s been the biggest focus for you heading into the Draft and why?
The biggest focus has been still adding onto my jump shot from NBA range and deeper, but also, just tighten up my handle and tightening up aspects my game, ISO scoring and things like that. I mean, there’s a lot of things that I could add on, but, I’ve been trying to do a lot of fine tuning, for sure.
Yeah, it’s almost like if you take too broad of a look you’re not really going to get better.
Right, instead of being a lot better at a skill that you need, a specific skill. And that’s what my approach has been for a long time, trying to add my pick-and-roll game down, really knowing the pick-and-roll game. I spent a whole summer doing that. Next summer was shooting the ball, making sure anytime I was open, I shot the ball. I’ve had big jumps in skills pretty much each year and I’ve had an offseason just because I’ll take it with that type of speed, taking it one step at a time, one skill at a time.
You’re an interesting guy because you’ve been surrounded by high level teammates going back to high school, AAU ball, but you always seem to elevate them. What is it about your game that you think makes everyone who plays with you better?
A lot of times, I feel like people think it’s more about the game, but I feel like it’s been because of who I am off the court, like the teammate that I am, the friend that I am off the court. I feel like guys have been able to relate to me, I’ve had great teammates that I’ll turn to brothers. I just saw Scottie Barnes downstairs, we probably hugged five times, just because I feel like I’ve been able to build really good connections with guys and I want the best out of my teammates. I want Scottie Barnes to be the best Scottie Barnes that he can be, because I wanted Scottie Barnes to have a great college career and a great NBA career as well. So in high school, we had to push each other to be the best that we could be. I think that’s what it is, I want the best out of my teammates, and I feel like that’s kind of a contagious attitude to where eventually everybody, the whole team is starting to think like that, and then we can get the best out of each other.
Someone comes up to you on the sidewalk and says, “Cade, what’s the game I need to watch to get a sense of what makes you such a special player?” What’s the game that you’re telling them to go back and find?
I’d say the Baylor game, conference championship. I mean, it wasn’t my highest scoring game or whatever, but Baylor was incredible this last year, from top to bottom. They had guys that could go, and I feel like that was one of the biggest wins of my life, as far as Baylor’s one of the best teams I’ve played in my young career, probably the best team that I’ve played in my young career. And so, to be able to come in as real underdogs and beat them in the conference tournament was huge, and I feel like just how the game went, I had some struggles through the game. I had some great moments through the game. I made some plays. There was just a lot of different things going on, but I think my approach to that game and just the fact that there was no way I was gonna let us lose, that kind of screamed off the screen, and if I’m telling somebody to watch a game on me, that’s what I want them to see.
And I remember that game vividly. At a certain point, did you just feel like you were in control of things? Because Baylor was very good at getting opposing point guards really knocked off their game.
Yeah, I mean, that’s pretty much every game. I feel like any game I step into, I have a real influence on how the game is gonna go and the speed of the game. And so I feel like no matter how much you game plan, it’s gonna be hard to take my influence on the game away. No matter how I play — good, bad, whatever — people are gonna really recognize how Cade played in the game. And that’s something I take pride on, and I know that it’s a long game, but I know that I’m gonna get going eventually. So I never let myself get too down or anything through the struggles or a couple missed shots or whatever, I just stay poised, and I feel like that game, my teammates really kept us in it and then made sure that I was confident whenever it was that time.
I always like asking dudes about teammates, and you just mentioned the guy I was going to ask about in Scottie. I have to imagine those practices of Montverde where it’s you, it’s Scottie, it’s Day’Ron, it’s all the kids in future Drafts. That’s iron sharpens iron from the time you’re, what, 15, 16 years old?
Listen, I think some of those Montverde practices had to have been the best basketball that I’ve played in my life. Just, the consistency of it, but how bad everybody wants to win. And like, we were such a tight-knit group, but you would think that the two teams hated each other when we practice. And every day, the teams were different, and it’s a new hatred going on. And I think that was just the competitive mindset, but it wasn’t just the players. It started with coach Boyle, he wanted everybody to be like this all the time, to compete and make each other better and push each other, to talk trash to each other, cuss at each other, all the other stuff, because it only makes you better physically, but mentally, like, I think any game that we went into, we knew it was gonna be a lot easier than practice. We knew we were prepared. And having the guy like Scottie with all that energy and passion and things like that, I mean, it’s just contagious. So everybody got to bring their best qualities to the table, and everybody else got soak all those up.
I went back and I watched the interview you gave with Dwyane Wade on the pressure that you faced coming in Oklahoma State, and you said, “I think it’s more like an opportunity to prove that even though projected me as that, I didn’t feel I was known enough.” Now that the Draft is here and you’re going right at the top, do you still feel that way?
I don’t think it’s as much as people know me, but I still sometimes don’t feel like I get the respect that my game deserves. Which, granted, I’ll probably feel like that maybe my whole career. Like, who knows? That’s just kind of a chip that I was born with, like, I don’t feel like I’m getting enough, I don’t feel I’m getting enough out of myself, I don’t feel like I was good enough. I’ve always had this competitive mindset, wanting to be better than what it was, to improve and things like that. And I feel like that’s been the main thing that’s helped me get to this point. And like you said, I kind of felt like, people were still sleeping going into Oklahoma State, just because people were projecting Oklahoma State eighth in the conference. So, just having those little things, I try to take all of those and use them as motivation because motivation is everything.
And then my last question: You’ve been a guy who’s been mentioned that you’re going to make the NBA, you’re going to go at the top the Draft, all this stuff for years, and that’s finally here. Have you taken a second to take it all in and reflect on your journey so far?
Man, it’s crazy. It’s crazy. It feels like it took forever, but now that I’m actually here, it happened so fast. I want to be able to run back some of those AAU games and just relive those memories, but, I mean, where I’m at right now in my life, I’m excited for what’s coming up next. I know it’s a big turning point in my life coming up, so now, I’m just trying to sit here and soak it all in and really enjoy the moment. I don’t want to look back 10 years from now and feel like, “Nah, I was just too ahead of myself, I was onto the next thing, I wish I would have been in the moment.” So yeah, like I said this is a surreal moment, I’m gonna try to make the most out of it.