By several accounts, Cade Cunningham was the most impressive player in Las Vegas this summer as Team USA prepared for the FIBA World Cup. But Cunningham will not be suiting up for Team USA when it kicks off its tournament journey on Aug. 26 in the Philippines.
The reason? Load management. And as Team USA head coach Steve Kerr said this month, “There’s no load management in FIBA.”
But as enriching as it would have been for Cunningham to take his talents to Manila, Pistons fans can take comfort in his decision to play it safe. The former No. 1 draft pick suffered a shin injury that cost him all but 12 games of the 2022-2023 season, and he opted to play on Team USA’s lesser select team as a result, even after it became apparent that he could join the regular 12-man roster.
“I wanted to dedicate my summer to really make sure that as an individual, I was ready for the season coming up physically and mentally,” Cunningham told The Athletic. “I didn’t want to join the Team USA World Cup team and still have to go to rehab and not fully be a part of everything that was going on. … That’s why I wanted to be on the select team, to be a part of it but also, you know, keep my summer and keep my routine going.”
Cunningham’s stellar Team USA scrimmage play, in which he led the select team to consecutive victories over the main squad, did not go unnoticed among sports bettors eyeing the Most Improved Player market for the upcoming NBA season. At Caesars Sportsbook, Cunningham has been the most bet-on MIP candidate nationwide, attracting 18% of all wagers at odds of 10/1. (Only Philly’s Tyrese Maxey, at 7/1, and Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges, at 8/1, had shorter odds as of Tuesday.)
The tilt toward Cunningham is even more pronounced in Michigan, where 73% of all MIP futures bets are on Cunningham to make a profound leap in his third year in the league.
Caesars’ lead NBA trader, David Lieberman, said Cunningham’s Team USA performance “sort of solidified him being healthy again, and the glowing reports definitely led to quite a few bets on him.”
As far as Cunningham’s decision to stay home for the balance of the summer, Lieberman said, “I think it was probably the right move coming off an injury. He doesn’t want to push it too hard, too soon. If he wasn’t coming off an injury, he might have been more open to playing for the [national] team this summer.”
Bettors bullish on season-win over
Cunningham’s strong play has also contributed to Caesars gradually raising the Pistons’ projected season win total from 25.5 to 28.5, with the over accounting for 97% of all bets nationally since Caesars opened that market. In a nutshell, bettors appear undeterred by Detroit’s abysmal performance last season, likely chalking that up to Cunningham’s absence.
“They’re one of our most popular over plays right now for season wins,” said Lieberman. “There are definitely a lot of believers again. Last year was kind of a lost season, but some of the pieces in place are reasons for excitement.”
What’s more, a pair of new pieces, first-rounders Ausar Thompson and Marcus Sasser, each performed well in Summer League. There, Sasser exhibited a microwave-like ability to score in bunches, while Thompson flashed a scintillating all-around game on the wing.
“I think Thompson, if he’s not starting right away, I could see him being a starter not too long into the season,” said Lieberman. “He’s super young, but they don’t have a ton of depth on the wing. Sasser, he was great in Summer League, but he’s a little bit more buried behind Cunningham and [Jaden] Ivey and Monte Morris. He’ll see some minutes off the bench, but I think Thompson will slide into a much bigger role. He might be a little raw, but he has a chance to get tons of minutes right away.”
The opportunity to play “tons of minutes right away” typically bodes well for Rookie of the Year candidates, which may make Thompson a value play at 30/1.
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