At 28 years of age, Dante Cunningham is the Pelicans token journeyman veteran headed into the 2015-16 season. However, after starting only 41 games over the course of 6 seasons with the Trailblazers, Bobcats (Hornets), Grizzlies, and Timberwolves, he found himself in the starting rotation for 27 of his 66 games last year.
After re-signing with the Pelicans this off-season, Cunningham has really taken to New Orleans in a fun way, which isn't too hard when your last few jobs were in Portland, Charlotte, Memphis, and Minneapolis (yeah, i'm hating)... He's been seen carousing the French Quarter and frequenting all of the typical eateries the city has to offer. However, we're less concerned with what he can discover in the Crescent City, and more with what he has to offer to his squad heading into the season.
Going into his second year with the Pelicans, hunting season has opened, and numerous players have nagging or new injuries. One of which is Quincy Pondexter, whose injury and subsequent surgery has him slated to return in November. In his absence, it's widely expected that Cunningham will be the next man up.
Last season, after being signed as a FA following what was thought to be the "NBA signee blacklist" for a felony assault conviction that was eventually dropped, Cunningham averaged 25 minutes, 5.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 0.8 assists per game. Those numbers will need to increase but not quite as drastically as you'd expect for a starting forward. By comparison, Pondexter averaged 27.8 minutes, 9.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
More important than the stats that he should and could put up, are the intangibles that came with his game. Dante should work for Pine-Sol given numerous occasions he was giving up his body for a hard nosed rebound or steal. His scrappy play may soften now that he'll be expected to have more minutes if Alvin Gentry tightens the leash.
Not only is he scrappy, but he's also a decent pick and pop field goal shooter inside the arc. His career .472 field goal percentage dipped last year (.457), but I expect that in Gentry's system, Cunningham will be able to regain his efficiency -- he's going to find himself open a good number of times.
However, his most valuable asset to this team early in the season will be his defense. Even matching up against forwards 1.5 x his weight, Cunningham has a similar knack for the ball that Anthony Davis has shown the world the in his brief career. In last years playoff match-up with the Golden State Warriors, D.C. denied Marreese Speights' powerful dunk attempt through the paint, leading to a turnover. The home crowd Pels fans, though already inherently unhinged, went downright bonkers.
There's also, however, a possibility that Dante is the one left behind in Gentry's scheme. It'll be curious to see if defense is put on the back-burner in favor of a high powered, fast flying offense -- not exactly a match for Cunningham's skill set. Don't get me wrong, if he has a step or two on his man on a fast break, the outcome could lead to a glorious abundance of Pelicans getting their real wings. I just don't that happening often for his court position.
Dante will need to improve on his defensive rebounding and quarter-court passing skills to find a niche in the fast paced (hopefully) melee. Being able to hit the guards at the timeline, or AD at the other end, is an art worth crafting this season. Remember when Kevin Love was tossing 84' lobs to LeBron James last year? Yeah, that's the kind of thing I think Dante could potentially bring to the table... IF he rebounds appropriately.
Another aspect of his game he'll need to improve, especially after he's relegated to the bench as a 2nd team rotation man, is to constantly work as a "handler" for Anthony Davis and help guide him to eventual superstardom. Though Davis' skills have far surpassed Cunningham's, a veteran ability to keep a 22-year old focused cannot be overlooked. Perkins and Anderson could also provide the same, because what's best for your best in the NBA, is what's best for the team.
Professional basketball is one of the most individualized sports around because it only takes one player to win a game. Davis' only experience in the post season was the first round exit last year to Golden State. Dante has been thrice, once with the Blazers and once with the Grizzlies -- all of which amounts to more experience at the next level against the best of the best. Providing insight to your superstar should be a priority for Dante, even if it comes at his own personal expense later in the regular season.
Though I don't expect DC to have a breakout year, and he's clearly already reached his full potential as an NBA player, I do believe he'll find success this year, proving to be another invaluable cog in the Pelicans machine.