Jalen Green & Cade Cunningham Both Show Out In Clash Of The Top Two Picks In NBA Draft | Jalen Wanted The Smoke, Cade Wanted The Win

Cade Cunningham, the 2021 NBA draft’s No. 1 overall pick, matched up with No. 2 overall selection Jalen Green in a prime time ESPN game featuring the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets. Both franchises are in rebuild mode and being led by their respective young phenoms. 

Both Green, 19, and Cunningham, 20, have been up and down to start the season but have shown flashes of the potential that afforded them top billing in the 2021 draft. 

ESPN was hoping for two solid performances and both delivered. Cunningham finished with 20 points on 8-18 shooting, including hitting half of his threes (4-8). Green hit on eight of 19 shots for 23 points, but was just 3-for-10 from three. 

The teams alone wouldn’t have been a great ratings draw for the network. Both franchises are reeling, trying to figure it out with underdeveloped talent. Entering Wednesday’s 112-104 Pistons win, the teams had combined records of 2-17. 

However, the first regular-season matchup between the Nos. 1 and 2 picks is always captivating viewing, so ESPN was selling this encounter hard. Green and Cunningham first met in a highly-touted Summer League matchup where both players showed out, combining for 48 points on 18-for-28 shooting from the floor.

The Dynasty Rejuvenator

Cunningham is the anointed savior in Detroit. His arrival has sparked a new optimism for a once-elite franchise that has fallen on hard times. Green was tabbed as the special talent who will help lift Detroit to its first playoff series win since 2008, which was the tail end of a dynastic run to four straight conference finals for the Pistons. 

Best Hair In The Business

Green has publicly said that he believes he should have been the top overall pick. Both players impacted a tightly contested first half that saw Houston leading 50-49 at halftime. Each had 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting. Cunningham was 2-for-3 from the arc, and Green was 1 of 4 from distance.  

Cunningham, a former quarterback in junior high school, played just 12.5 minutes in the first half but ran the offense with confidence when he was on the court. Green played almost 19 minutes before halftime.  

Mentorship 

H-Town coach Stephen Silas seemed to give Green a bit more freedom in his shot selection and decision-making than veteran Dwane Casey allotted Cunningham. Casey constantly offered instructions, advice and quick quizzes for his franchise player. Coaching him up. 

Cunningham isn’t the only one getting advice from a seasoned basketball mind. Green has assistant coach John Lucas, whom ESPN reporter Marc Spears calls the “basketball whisperer.” Lucas, who played in the NBA and overcame battles with addiction, is now seen as Mr. Fix It in NBA circles. He’s done nothing but help players deal with life’s curveballs for the past two decades.   

Spears says Lucas had “Green carry a diary around to write down things that are important.”

Lucas also said, per Spears, that “Jalen has to get a lot stronger.”

ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy was asked to assess the rookies’ first-half performance. 

“I thought they showed flashes of really good decision-making. Green played the entire first half with just one turnover, and I think he took better quality shots like his coach Stpehen Silas was alluding too. I like the pace of Cade Cunnignham’s game, and for only his fifth NBA game I think he looks solid,” 

Cunningham missed four of the first 10 games with an ankle injury that really set him back, but coaches say his intellect has allowed him to pick things up quickly after struggling in his first few games. Cunningham had dropped 35 points and was beginning to assert himself as a go-to player in his previous two games entering the showdown with Green. 

The second half would tell the real tale of the tape. 

Green started to cook in the second half, hitting two more threes and upping his point production to 19 points with 4:00 left in the third quarter and Houston leading 69-68 in a back-and-forth grit fest. 

Green Reminds Cunningham What The Night Was About

While Green streaked to the basket and constantly drew contact, Detroit only had one free throw to that point. Green’s enthusiasm got the best of him following an emphatic dunk with 3:43 left in the third quarter. He streaked past Cunningham, two-hand slammed it, hung on the rim and then turned to his fellow rook and shouted some aggressive smack talk. The Debbie Downers, known as officials throughout pro sports these days, hit the young blood with a technical foul. 

The two players exchanged some civilized words as they walked back up the court. It was a moment that painted a clear picture of the dynamic between these two players. Green is out to prove that he’s better. Cade isn’t chasing anyone, but he’s game for all challenges. 

At that point Green had 23 ponts and Cunningham had 15. Their point totals would remain that way until late in the fourth as both players fell back into the flow of a game where momentum had taken permanent residence with the Pistons who led by 11 (100-89) with 6:00 left. The veterans started taking over late. 

Both players shot more efficiently than they have all season. 

Neither player has been shooting the ball exceptionally well. Entering Wednesday night’s game, Cunningham was averaging 10.8 points per game but shooting 23 percent from the field and a dismal 14 percent from three-point range in a small sample size of four games. Green has a higher scoring average and a 30-point game with eight threes under his belt. But he’s scored three points or less in six of his first 10 games. 

Overall, Cunningham probably gets the slight edge because of the way he ended the night. Cade scored his final bucket on a nice power spin move in the paint to give Detroit a 108-104 lead and basically seal the win. So Green won the war of the points, but Cunningham’s team got its second win of the season.

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.