Showing out in the NBA in March is not quite like hitting beautifully straight drives on the practice range, but it’s close. When there’s no pressure and fewerless consequences, it’s easy to swing free. That’s exactly what Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green did last month, giving their fans a taste of why they were the first two picks in the 2021 NBA Draft.
On paper, Detroit’s 6-10 record and Houston’s 5-12 mark last month aren’t that impressive. However, when you consider each team only won 15 games over the other fourth-and-a-half months preceding March, it technically qualifies as improvement.
It’s easier to see the progress of the two rookie guards, though. If you include Cunningham’s numbers from March — 23 points, seven assists, and six rebounds on 48/32/83 shooting splits — he was still five points, 1.5 assists, and half a rebound better than his season stats. With Jalen Green, his 21 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists on 48/40/77 shooting splits last month are four points, .3 rebounds, and an assist above his totals on the year. Both hit a level we hadn’t seen yet while making me look like a fool for ragging on them in my Power Tankings rankings.
Green topped Cunningham for March Rookie of the Month honors, and set the record for made 3s (50) in a month by a rookie, so my mea culpa will start with him.
Green was labeled as an athletic pure scorer coming out of the G League, and he’s got a young Ray Allen vibe to him. It’s not just that he shot 40 percent from deep and broke records in March, it’s how comfortable and smooth he looks pulling up from everywhere.
There were multiple buckets in his 32-point performance against the Lakers where he confidently stroked a shot from the midrange, the corner, a step inside the arc, etc. He only made four 3s that game and, ideally, he’ll learn the spatial awareness to shoot a 3 over a long 2. That said, whenever I’m trying to discern if a guy is a pure shooter and not just a 3-point specialist, I look to see how comfortable he is hoisting from anywhere, and Green looks to be pretty, pretty relaxed wherever he’s shooting from on the floor.
His jumper isn’t as pretty as Allen’s probably still is, but that’s to be expected because only one person can paint Starry Night. Also, people often forget that Allen had bunnies early (and occasionally late) in his career. They won’t forget that about Green if he keeps baptizing centers like he did Jakob Poeltl.
The Rockets need to figure out how and who to surround him with in order to avoid Green putting up a ton of empty numbers during his tenure in Houston. A pick-and-roll partner would be nice, and a point guard who can show him how to run one would be even better. I look at how rounded Devin Booker’s game has become since Chris Paul got there, and the Rockets remind me of those aimless, pre-CP3 Suns teams right now.
I had Green’s team as the No. 1 tanking team, solely because career loser Christian Wood and desperately-in-need-of-a-good-situation Kevin Porter Jr. should never “lead” a team. The good thing about both the Pistons and Rockets sucking so much early in the season is their five- and six-win months didn’t ruin their lottery odds, as they each remain in the bottom three of the league. Houston should have a top three draft pick again and one of a trio of highly talented players headlining the 2022 class. They’ll need more than that to maximize Green, though.
Detroit has less of an issue with team morale, and that’s largely because Cunningham is already the Pistons’ leader. I think the reason he hasn’t made a legit run at the ROY is because he’s not wired to try to get 30 every night. He tends to do what the team needs, and that’s how you should want your point guard to operate.
If you swapped him out for fellow extremely-coachable rookie Scotty Barnes and let him run the show in Toronto, I think the Raptors would probably have a similar record, despite the positional fit. (That’s also a credit to Masai Ujiri’s knack for building a roster and Nick Nurse’s malleability as a coach.)
Everyone talks about opponents’ inability to speed up Cunningham, and that’s certainly a great asset for such a young player. What stands out to me when watching him is not only can you not rush him, but he already has a lot in his bag to counter defenses and create open looks for himself off the bounce.
A lot of guards see Atlanta’s backcourt as an all-you-can-score buffet, and the young hooper out of Oklahoma State was no different when he went for 28 points, 10 assists, and a six boards in a W in early March.
He gets you on his hip and uses his handle to get to the bucket and his athleticism to finish, or he hits you with a half-spin turnaround hook shot, or finger rolls in a layup with his off hand, or goes right down the lane and punches it. He’ll need to improve his shooting — dropping that 32 percent 3-point shooting percentage in his stats earlier stands out for the wrong reasons — to keep teams honest when he’s off the ball and prevent defenders from sagging off of him when he has it. (He has the highest usage rate of all rookies, so he has the rock a lot.)
I don’t quite have a comp for him, rather a grab bag of skill sets and assets from other players. His measured approach is like if Brandon Roy was pass-first, and his shifty driving and finishing around the rim reminds me of that guy at the Y who runs the court for a couple hours and never repeats the same move. Unfortunately, like homie at the Y, he can’t get a foul call, either, and his jumper needs some work, too.
The best thing you can do is surround Cunningham with guys he can play off of, and like Houston, Detroit should be able to get one of the three tall, talented players at the top of the draft board in June to put next to their promising, soon-to-be sophomore.