How Cade Cunningham Wins With an Unconventional First Step

When the top flight creators and playmakers are talked about in basketball, it’s often leading with their first step, their ability to put a defense in a blender with blinding quickness. That makes sense! The whole point of being a primary ball-handler…. put the defense into rotation, open pockets, and exploit with your passing and scoring to varying degrees.

Think of it like cracking a can of cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning (family tradition): in order to get those rolls in the oven, you need to apply some force to cause that Pillsbury canister to explode. Think of that like the paint touch savants of the league. OR, you can apply pressure, using torque to twist the can open, which takes more time and focus, but can lead to less mess.

That’s how Cade Cunningham wins, and it’s exactly what he showed against the Miami Heat during Detroit’s opening game near comeback thriller.

Cunningham finished with a game high 30 points and 9 assists, nearly willing Detroit to a win.

*** It’s worth noting that Monte Morris, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Isaiah Livers are all out with injury; three of the best if not the three best shooters on the team.***

There’s a reason why generating easy looks on the interior is sought after; it’s the most effective mode of creation that you can find. But, Cunningham possesses the craftiness and feel to be an extremely effective creator without standout burst.

Often you think of creation being an inside-out approach, which makes sense, but think back to the canister and the idea of torque; a twisting force that causes rotation. Cade doesn’t technically twist his defenders, but he puts them in a torque-like bind with his blend of shooting touch, footwork, and control.

I couldn’t help but think last night in watching that Cade already has one of the most effective jab steps in the game.

It’s not sexy, it doesn’t necessarily create this giant ranging gaps… but it’s not supposed to. It’s a jab, a feint, a setup.

It’s small, but note how he displaces his defender with each range in his jab; that matters. There are a multitude of players who use jab steps, but there are a handful that wield them and command with them.

Compare that to this triple from Cade.

“Why are you showing a clip with no jab step after a jab series?”

That’s the point! It’s the threat in combination with the quickness and decisiveness of Cade’s shot and potential to take players off the dribble that creates a concoction strong enough to make All-Defense level players hesitate at what Cade might do.

Establish the shot and setup pacing, and then the torque is applied in full.

So often when talking about ball-handlers, we gloss over footwork. Speed and acceleration are paramount without question, as is the efficacy of handle, but what about footwork? So many players who struggle to get the most out of their handle aren’t in sync with hands and feet, not consistently able to play in multiple planes of motion.

That’s not Cade. He has an impeccable array of footwork that almost always feels in tandem with his hands and the ball. It’s a dance of sorts, and Cade is always lead.

The rhythmic in and out into the stride step and extension finish is just beautiful.

Not dissimilarly to Luka Doncic, Cade brings strength and start/stop quickness to the table and sets himself up in droves.

There is rarely a waste in energy, whether that’s coming around/off of screens, or attacking the paint; he’s taking the best path available. That often includes using your own path against you, as Cade masterfully picks apart your own momentum as a defender. It’s never the giant gashing slashes of someone like his teammate Jaden Ivey, but rather death by 1,000 cuts that then open up increasingly wounding possessions as the game unfolds.

Once he finds his comfort zone and is toying with the defense, he’s in control.

His playmaking shines as the defense continues to adjust and react, and it’s no surprise that 7 of his 9 assists came in the 2nd half. His ability to play in tight spaces, and navigate them smoothly is sublime.

Cunningham just turned 22 last month.

He’s healthy, he’s stronger, and he has what should be the best surrounding cast in an admittedly still building young group.

With a steady hand, decisive jabs, and an incredibly polished skill set, year three in the NBA feels like the year for Cade, and I can’t wait to watch it unfold.

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