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 set the franchise on a more comfortable path forward.
Detroit has its guy, in the form of a 6-foot-6 ballhandler who can score in a variety of ways despite lacking blistering athleticism. Cade Cunningham is the face. The former No. 1 pick is the one the Pistons will build this thing around. Detroit, a short amount of time after determining it needed to switch direction as an organization, landed the player who could lead it for the next decade-plus.
The hard part is done.
Now the franchise is tasked is with finding quality players to layer around its potential star player. That shouldn’t be a problem considering Cunningham’s versatility as a player can make any fit look, at the least, workable. However, adding quality players who best complement Cunningham is what will bring the Pistons back to relevance sooner rather than later.
In this year’s draft class, the options for Detroit with the No. 5 pick all carry enticing qualities that should work alongside Cunningham. For more than one reason or another, it’s easy to envision Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, Iowa’s Keegan Murray, Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe or Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin slotting in nicely next to Cunningham. On the other hand, though, all also carry attributes that could lead to a less-than-optimal fit next to 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 next to Cunningham.
If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs and pray for Cunningham to have a my-turn-your-turn partner like what the Celtics have in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Ivey presents the most upside 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 isolation instances, according to Synergy. He’s got an explosive first step and attacks the rim like it picked on his little sister. Additionally, Ivey was an adequate spot-up shooter this past season, shooting 35.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per Synergy, making him potentially useful as Cunningham initiates offense.
My biggest two concerns with Ivey on the offensive side of the ball are his feel and non-existent midrange game. As for Ivey’s feel, he doesn’t make the most advanced reads out of the pick-and-roll. He delivers good passes, but it doesn’t seem like he executes reads that aren’t obvious. Ivey is very right-side dominant in the pick-and-roll, and when you couple that with his lack of feel, it makes you wonder if he’ll struggle with initiating offense at the NBA level. Cunningham has the potential to be a lethal off-ball, spot-up shooter, and it is important that Detroit finds a partner who can help him utilize that part of his game. Now, onto Ivey’s midrange woes. Of course, the midrange has lost some of its appeal as basketball has advanced.
However, when you get to high-level, NBA basketball, all of that goes out of the window. Teams need an elite shot maker or two who can just get a bucket, no matter from where on the floor, as defense intensifies, teams become more familiar with one another and legs get tired. Ivey, to put it nicely, just wasn’t very efficient in the midrange. Ivey converted on just six of his 27 attempts on non-paint 2-pointers last season. Is that cause for real concern? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s possible he improves in that regard. However, as I mentioned before, if the Pistons’ end goal is to be playing basketball in May and June, it would be beneficial for a high-usage ballhandler like Ivey to be able to score from in the in-between game.
Overall, I like but don’t love Ivey’s fit alongside Cunningham. Sure, Ivey provides a combination of elite athleticism and good 3-point shooting that is absent on Detroit’s roster. That might be enough to make him the pick. Yet, for a player that will likely need the ball in his hands to be at his most impactful, you do seriously wonder if Ivey will be able to read the game well enough to bolster the play of his teammates. Ivey likes to get to the rim, and that’s great and fun. However, at this level, he’ll have to be a bit more advanced in order to reach his full potential.
Murray is the antithesis of Ivey, so it’s easy to understand why Pistons supporters have found their corners and stayed there throughout the pre-draft process.
For everything that Murray lacks in terms of athleticism, the forward out of Iowa more than makes up for in smarts. He’s an intelligent player who rapidly reads defenses, is an excellent cutter and does a great job of sealing his defender to make himself an easy target. Murray is a low-maintenance offensive weapon, which, is something else Detroit could use on its roster. Per Synergy, Murray ranked in the 85th percentile or better in spot-up and post-up opportunities. Furthermore, Murray netted more than a point per possession in cutting and as the roller in pick-and-roll actions. This archetype of player would slot in well in Detroit, especially if you’re a fan of a Cunningham-centric offense. A pick-and-roll action with Cunningham and Murray could be tough to defend. The Hawkeyes often called lob plays for Murray.
Murray might not carry the potential star power of Ivey or Sharpe, but he can score from all over the floor, in various ways. He likely won’t be the Brown to Cunningham’s Tatum, but did anyone ever anticipate Khris Middleton becoming a viable No. 2 in Milwaukee?
Murray doesn’t have elite wiggle and handle, but he has a low dribble and long strides to go with tremendous body control. Everything about Murray is straight and to the point. There isn’t much flash. It might not be exciting. However, Detroit, as is, doesn’t have the most exciting team. Cunningham’s game isn’t what many would deem “exciting.” Neither is Saddiq Bey’s. Murray fits right in as a prospect who just gets the job done.
Murray being able to move without the ball and just take advantage of his opportunities, 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 blossom into a star, they’re probably the picks. If not, the sureness and diversity of Murray makes for a great option for Cunningham to have at his disposal.
I’m not going to sit here and act like I have the entire book on Sharpe, who skipped his lone college season. I’ve watched all of the high-school tape I could find, I’ve talked to NBA people who have watched him workout and have evaluated him for the last few years, and I can see the appeal. However, this isn’t a LeBron James situation where anyone with two eyes and a brain can see that this dude is destined for NBA success.
What stands out most when watching Sharpe is his athleticism. He’s a true above-the-rim athlete who moves elegantly. He also has the creativity you want in a go-to scorer, with an assortment of moves and layup packages to finish in difficult situations. He’s got a solid handle and can shoot the ball. His passing also isn’t talked about enough. He’s a scorer at his core, but I saw many instances in which he made the right read instead of going for his own bucket. Now, despite all of these glowing qualities, the 6-foot-6 Sharpe, who was a late bloomer both physically and in the basketball world, displayed all of this at the high school level. Many players who have flamed out at the NBA level were dominant in high school. Any NBA team would be lying if they said taking Sharpe wasn’t a gamble.
Due to his limited playing time against high-level competition, I don’t have a good feel for how Sharpe would run the pick-and-roll at the NBA level. I’m not sure if he makes advanced reads. The idea of him as an elite shot creator next to Cunningham makes sense, but if that doesn’t pan out, what else does he bring? I can’t confidently say at this point in time.
Again, if the Pistons are dead set on using the No. 5 pick to try and acquire a second star to pair with Cunningham, then the swing on Sharpe is worth it. If there is any doubt that he can get there, it may be best to use that resource elsewhere.
Last but not least, Mathurin, in a traditional sense, is a perfect pairing next to Cunningham. He’s a true shooting guard with a college résumé that gives evaluators a better idea of how his game will translate to the next level.
The Arizona guard, similarly to Murray, is somewhat low maintenance, meaning he won’t try to hijack an offense. His game is very direct. Mathurin knocked down 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s as a sophomore, per Synergy, and a good amount of those makes were difficult attempts. If he’s run off the line, he gets downhill quickly and with great burst. He glides. There isn’t a lot of dancing in his game, and I like that about him.
Furthermore, I don’t think Mathurin will ever be a lead initiator of offense in the NBA, but he is an underrated passer and showed off some advanced reads this past 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 running the pick-and-roll and swinging the ball to the opposite wing to Mathurin, who then gets run off the 3-point line, gets into the paint and finds a wide-open Bey for a 3. I think that’s something you could see a lot of if Mathurin ends up in Detroit because he does tend to make the right play and has 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 finishing numbers when jumping into the trees in college. Of course, that can improve as his body matures and he plays more basketball, but the Pistons have had issues finishing at the rim as a team in the not-too-distant past.
In all, Mathurin is a great fit. He doesn’t carry the upside of Ivey or Sharpe, but, like Murray, there’s no question in my mind that he’ll be an effective NBA player for a long time. Also, I do think he carries more upside as a self-creator on the offensive end than people give him credit for. In my mind, Mathurin is the perfect blend of the upside of a Sharpe or Ivey and the reliability of a Murray.
(Top photo of Cade Cunningham: Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)