Cunningham missed the entire preseason and the first four games of the regular season because of a sprained ankle suffered during training camp. He went through team drills on Friday before being cleared to play, but was under a minutes restriction of 20 to 25 minutes.
He had 2 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists in 18 minutes. His 2 points were the fewest scored in a No. 1 pick’s NBA debut since Anthony Bennett in 2013, who also ended with 2 points.
However, he saw things differently from his perspective, notably coming off an injury.
“I think it was good. I feel like coming in, just being able to make some plays off the ball, get some rebounds. I felt like I was solid defensively,” Cunningham said. “And, I mean those are the points that I really wanted to come out and just prove to myself that my ankle was straight and that I could move, guard and do everything else. So, I got all the jitters out now and now I can just go play free.”
Cunningham said he felt anxious to finally hit the court after being sidelined for so long. His lone basket came off a gliding layup up the middle of the lane at 5:10 in the second quarter.
“I wouldn’t say it was anything I didn’t envision or I couldn’t imagine it being like,” Cunningham said. “But, whenever you step out there, it’s always different than what you might’ve had in your head as far as once you get out there, all the time you spent trying to prepare your mind for it, once you get out there, you’re still gonna feel the over-excitement of just wanting to play.”
Cunningham called it tough to watch his teammates from the sideline, but he received support throughout the process.
His first game marks 40 years to the day after franchise legend Isiah Thomas made his Pistons debut with 31 points and 11 assists against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“What a coincidence and a pleasant surprise to be reminded of such great memories,” Thomas told ESPN. “Truly unforgettable beginning with Detroit and the Pistons.”
In winning their first game of the season, Detroit avoided its first 0-5 start since 2012-13. Pistons coach Dwane Casey also stressed that Cunningham shouldn’t feel pressure to “save the day.”
“Exactly what I thought, I knew it was gonna be rust, timing and just the whole thing,” Casey said. “You can’t go a month and come out and expect to play the way you want to play, but I liked the effort, the intensity he played with, the way he pushed the ball, moved the ball, tried to make the right decisions and that’s what we needed, the ball movement.”
Cunningham shot 1-for-8 from the field (12.5 percent). That is the second-worst field goal percentage by a No. 1 overall pick in his NBA debut in the Modern Draft Era (since 1966). Bennett shot 0-for-5 in his debut.
Although he’ll be compared to previous top picks frequently, the Pistons rookie will try to create his own narrative in the league.
“You don’t have to listen to everything. I mean, they could say it, but it’s all about if I put my ears to it and really let it resonate with me,” Cunningham said. “I try to keep my energy in the right place. I try to keep my head in the right place and so, my team, they know what they expect out of me, I know what I expect out of me, so that’s all that’s really mattering to me. People can say whatever they want, outside of that, but I probably won’t hear it.”