One of the best stories for the Detroit Pistons in the 2023-24 has been the development of franchise guard Cade Cunningham. After missing most of his sophomore campaign due to a shin injury, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick is averaging career-high numbers of 22.2 points per game on 45.3% from the field and 34.6% from three. Cunningham also ranks ninth in the NBA with 7.4 assists per game.

At this point, two glaring areas of Cunningham's game must growth to help cement him among the league's elite. The most obvious needed improvement is simply the Pistons' inability to win. Detroit is 27-95 with Cunningham active, but that issue speaks to bigger issues than his production. The next problem that needs to be resolved is Cunningham's ability to get to the free-throw line.

Cade Cunningham has never gotten a fair whistle

Pistons' Cade Cunningham

The third-year guard is averaging a career-high 4.3 free throw attempts a game. Even with this being a career-high achievement, Cunningham is 42nd in free throw attempts per game in the NBA. Over the last two games, he has shockingly scored 56 points without attempting a single free throw.

Cunningham addressed the free throw numbers after losing in the final seconds to the Orlando Magic on Friday. Cunningham was visibly frustrated with the officiating, openly pondering what he could do to draw more whistles going forward.

“There's a lot of things I want to say but I want to keep my money. I take pride in being a good basketball player. I don't take pride in the fact that I can't get to the line. I'm trying to get there. I'm watching the stuff, trying to learn from it. I have to stop b**ing and crying. I feel like that's making them not want to look out for me more. I don't know. I don't know what it is. Maybe I need to be nicer. Maybe I need to kiss someone's a**. I don't know what it is. I'm working on it. I'm trying to get it,” he said, per James Edwards III of The Athletic.

A lack of free throws has been a puzzling issue throughout Cunningham's entire career. As a 6-7 point guard, lots of Cunningham's scoring is predicated on using his size and strength to score in the paint. Despite deploying that physical style of play, he does not get the volume of free throw attempts we regularly see from other top scoring and playmaking options.

Cunningham played 64 games during his rookie year, attempting a total of 168 free throws for an average of 2.6 attempts a game. Cunningham put up a career-high night in January 2021, scoring 34 points against the Denver Nuggets with no free throw attempts included.

The Pistons' point guard still played a physical style as a rookie, but somehow struggled to get a fair response from the officials. He finished 72nd in free throw attempts behind players like Jaxson Hayes, Jeff Green, Ivica Zubac and Kevin Love. While credible rotation players, they each had significantly smaller roles, minutes and overall production compared to an alpha dog like Cunningham.

Number one overall picks normally do not have to struggle for calls in the NBA. Zion Williamson averaged 7.4 free throws per game as a rookie, attempting 10 more free throws than Cunningham despite playing 40 fewer games.

In 2023-24, Cunningham has not attempted a single free throw in nine games. He also has six games this season where he has shot no more than two free throws.

This issue has not been ignored throughout the team, either. Head coach Monty Williams has consistently questioned Cunningham's officiating all season and followed up on the concern after Friday's game.

“How does a guy, even on the last bucket, how do you get to the basket like that and not draw contact?” he said, per Bally Sports Detroit. “There were a number of times that I thought he wasn't trying to manipulate the contact, there was just contact and he's not getting to the line. It's frustrating. Cade is a guy who attacks the basket.”

Even with a league-worst record of 8-48, the Pistons have been competitive from start to finish in plenty of games this season. It's difficult to think how the result of some games could be different if the calls leaned in a more fair direction towards Detroit.

Today's NBA is in a place where the defense is at a disadvantage against the offense. Overall scoring is at an all-time high and players are getting to the free-throw line at a higher rate than we have ever seen. Detroit may have a lot of areas to fix, but the lack of free-throw respect for Cunningham is becoming a serious problem.