As season progresses, Pistons' Cunningham looks for groove in back-to-backs
It’s one of the toughest adjustments for a player coming to the NBA. One game one night and another the next night.
Back-to-backs are a big factor in the NBA, and for most young players, there is no good preparation. Nothing in college basketball compares, and even the best players have a tough time in readying their bodies for the rigors of an 82-game NBA season, with about 14 or 15 back-to-backs sprinkled in.
That goes for the Pistons’ Cade Cunningham, too.
Cunningham played one season at Oklahoma State, and the closest thing was in the NCAA Tournament, when teams play two games in three days. There aren’t any back-to-backs, though.
In his first season with the Pistons, Cunningham has found a good groove in his production, ranking among the rookie leaders in several categories, and he’s put himself in the conversation for rookie of the year.
A closer look at his numbers shows a common struggle with back-to-backs. The difficulty is in the second game of back-to-backs, with no rest between games. He’s averaging 10.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in seven such games.
That pales in comparison to his numbers with one day of rest: 17.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Just that single day of rest makes a difference in his production.
“More than anything, you just want to get your legs back under you and get that same pop that you had going into the game before,” Cunningham said. “At the same time, you're still in the basketball mode, and you're still thinking basketball in the back-to-back game.
“When you get out there for the second game in the back-to-back, it kind of feels like you were just out there. You still have some of that rhythm you have from last game, but getting your legs back under you and making sure you're not short on shots is the main thing I'm trying to adjust to.”
It’s just a seven-game sample size in the 41 games Cunningham has played, so there isn’t a lot to put stock into, but it’s an indicator it’s an area of improvement that he’s pursuing. And it’s not just that way for him.
It’s also lower than the splits for No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Mobley’s numbers are a little better in nine back-to-backs: 13.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists. No. 2 pick Jalen Green has his best splits in back-to-backs, posting 16.8 points, but with only four games, it’s an even smaller sample size.
Saddiq Bey went through the rookie rigors last season in having to deal with back-to-backs, but his numbers were best in those situations: 13.6 points and 4.3 rebounds, with an impressive 41% on 3-pointers.
“It's tough and you just have to go through it. First, mentally, there's a switch and you have a new game and a new opportunity, then get your body right and make sure you have the same energy and be as loose,” Bey said. “It's just something you have to go through, and as you go through it more, you become more comfortable. You have to kind of go through that and prepare yourself.”
The Pistons have five more back-to-backs remaining in the season, including Friday against the Celtics. Cunningham is dealing with a hip-pointer issue, so he missed Thursday’s game, so he won’t play in both games of the back-to-back.
There are a number of reasons some players have success, but the common thread in their steady or increased production in the second game of back-to-backs is mental and physical preparation and establishing routines.
Veteran players rely on the training staff and medical staff to help maintain their routines, and Bey said he focuses on his nutrition and rejuvenating his body to keep in the right state to be able to stay consistent.
Celtics at Pistons
► Tipoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Celtics (28-25) have been up and down this season, but they’ve been on a nice streak, winning five of their last six games. The Pistons will be on the second night of a back-to-back.