Dante Cunningham Earned a Promotion

Last Friday, I wrote...

I'm not sure how much longer the Juwan Howard era can continue before his play becomes a Nate McMillan problem and not a Juwan Howard problem.   There are few situations where Howard's number gets called and your first reaction isn't "Oh dear, here we go."  Just play Cunningham. Let's see him play worse than Howard before Howard gets extended minutes again.    

Monday night against the Chicago Bulls, it was a beautiful thing to watch as Nate McMillan did just that.  And, at least for one night, that decision paid off nicely.

Taking a step back, though, McMillan has been presented with the quintessential "Experience vs. Potential" showdown thanks to Juwan Howard and Dante Cunningham.  In one corner, a cagey veteran on his last legs, who compensates for a lack of athleticism by knowing every trick in the book.  In the other, a hungry rookie anxious to please, still with star-struck eyes but also a monster work ethic and a strong, young athletic body.  

The role the two players are battling for is minor: backup minutes behind one of the team's star players, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.  It's a limited role but an important one, particularly in the wake of injuries to both Travis Outlaw and Nic Batum. Short two key rotation players, just filling those minutes is no longer enough.  Production is necessary.  Howard, bless his heart and his baggy Michigan shorts, isn't exactly oozing production these days. While he might not do a ton of positive things, he is still savvy enough to avoid doing negative things.  Generally speaking, avoiding disaster can often be enough to earn spot minutes when you're playing for one of the most risk-averse coaches in the league.

Having played four years at Villanova, the 22 year old Cunningham isn't your typical mistake-making rookie.   Yes, he occasionally rushes his shot and he did travel during Monday night's game after hesitating to pull the trigger. But his court awareness and instincts have exceeded expectations and he rarely breaks down defensively.  His footwork on both ends has been very good, he does a nice job of keeping the action in front of him, he crashes the glass hard (not always getting the board, but impacting the scrum at the least), he is active off the ball and he sets a solid pick.  

Put it all together and Cunningham leaves his coaches looking for a reason why he shouldn't play rather than reasons why he should. 

Until Monday night, Nate McMillan had given nearly all the backup power forward minutes to Juwan Howard.  Against the Bulls, though, Cunningham was the first power forward called off the bench.  After the game, McMillan was asked about his confidence in Cunningham, the rookie...

We're going to need him. He's worked hard. Every time you put him on the floor he's learning. He's picking up some things and doing some things better. We'll go that way. He's playing aggressive. He's smart. He's played big time basketball before. Yes, I do have confidence in him being out there.

Cunningham played 14 minutes against the Bulls' active, aggressive young frontline of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and James Johnson.  But it wasn't a particular match-up that made Nate McMillan call Cunningham's number.

I just like what I've been seeing. In practice, in games. Last game we gave him a few minutes, he made some hustle players. Was doing some good things. With Outlaw being out, we're going to need both him and Howard to play that 4 position, that backup 4. And I wanted to give him some minutes off of what he did last game. After looking at him tonight, you put him out there again. But we will need both he and Howard. 

Cunningham tallied 4 points, 3 rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot in his 14 minutes.  He drew rave reviews from multiple media members for his basketball intelligence, and his next-door neighbor in the locker room -- Greg Oden -- needled him with some good-hearted post-game banter.  It felt like the first good night of many to come for a player whose close childhood friend and grade-school teammate, Ty Lawson, has also quickly become an impact rookie. 

Cunningham's biggest offensive weapon -- the ability to consistently knock down an open face-up jumper -- is a perfect fit in the new-look second unit that features Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez, ball-handlers that can draw attention and then kick to Cunningham.  What's more, Blazers scouts have praised his pick-setting abilities since pre-draft workouts.  While Brandon Roy might not be crazy about using picks, the Miller/Cunningham pick-and-roll/pop/fade has some serious potential.  As does a solid Cunningham pick that creates daylight for a driving Jerryd Bayless.  

After the game, Cunningham was all smiles, even getting some television face time for the first time this season.  We talked briefly; here's what he had to say.

Dante1_medium 

Blazersedge: How much notice did Nate give you to let you know you would be that first power forward off the bench?

A little bit. We worked in the (Monday morning) walkthrough a little bit of what he was looking to do. When he called my name I was just ready to go.

Blazersedge: Were you surprised when he called your number tonight?

No, not today. Because again in walkthrough I was the first (backup) four to go through the plays and everything like that. It was just something mentally I was just always ready.

Blazersedge: Did he let you know if this was a permanent change or do you have an idea how long it might last?

Not really. No, I think it's going to depend on how he's feeling. What the team needs. It could go either way, me and Juwan.

Blazersedge: What has Nate emphasized that he wants to see from you in those minutes?

Energy, getting all the loose balls. Hustling. Just playing defense, things like that.

Blazersedge: You're a pretty solid pick-setter.  You're out there roaming a little bit.

I love the contact. I love getting out there setting screens. The problem is a lot of teams at the four position switch. So it's kind of hard for me to set a screen without having the guard just switching and it being a moot pick. 

Blazersedge: What do you do in that situation?

If they switch, a lot of times I either don't set a screen or slip the screen. If I do happen to set it, hopefully I have the big on me and I get far enough away so it's a long run for them to [recover to the ball-handler and protect the basket]. 

Blazersedge: But if you slip that pick and pop out, that's when they have you looking for your shot, right?

Mmm-hmmm.

Cunningham's work ethic, positive attitude, quick progress and increasing role with the team reminds me of a scaled-down version of Nic Batum's rookie year last season.  He's not being asked to start nor is he being asked to take on a major individual defensive responsibility. But he is now expected to step up and really contribute.  His veteran teammates and conservative coaching staff already respect his abilities and maturity enough to put him in that situation, even though he's been a pro less than 20 games.  

That's no small feat on this team.

-- Ben Golliver | (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com) | Twitter

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