Long-distance shooting always was in Dante Cunningham’s long-range strategy.
Maybe it didn’t show in his first six NBA seasons, when the 6-foot-8 Cunningham made two 3-pointers in 38 attempts, but the Pelicans forward always could see the 3-pointer in his future.
“It’s always been in the plans for me personally, just to develop and get better,” Cunningham said. “It’s basketball. You always have to get better.”
So whether or not Alvin Gentry had come to New Orleans with an offense geared toward spacing the floor, Cunningham planned to expand his range.
The combination of his work on the 3-pointer and Gentry’s willingness to let him shoot it has yielded good results for the Pelicans, none better than Cunningham’s 3-pointer with 36.2 seconds to play on Monday night that put New Orleans ahead to stay in a 115-112 win against the Kings.
“The only thing I thought of was coach saying, ‘Jump up and shoot it. If you’re open, jump up and shoot it. Knock it down,’” Cunningham said. “You only can make it or miss it.”
In his first 432 NBA games, Cunningham mostly missed it. When he tried it.
He’d never attempted more than 13 3-pointers in any previous season. Cunningham made 1-of-10 from 3-point range last season, and the make was his first since the 2010-11 season.
This season, Cunningham made four 3-pointers in his first three games. He’s 40-of-116 from 3-point range this season, a respectable 34.5 percent.
“We feel like it’s going in every time,” forward Anthony Davis said. “He works every day shooting the 3, especially the corner 3s.”
The corner was a logical place for Cunningham to begin his offensive expansion. The NBA 3-point line is 22 feet from the hoop in the corners, extending to 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the key.
“Learning to shoot a 3 one-on-one in the league, the corner’s the shortest,” Cunningham said. “That’s everyone’s highest percentage, so why not start there?”
Cunningham has taken 76 of his 116 3-point attempts from the corners: 36 from the left corner, where he’s shooting 44.4 percent, and 40 from the right corner, where he’s made 27.5 percent.
On Monday, Cunningham missed a left corner 3-pointer with 1:13 left in the game that could have put the Pelicans in front by one. A possession later, the Kings left him wide open in the right corner — “Literally, they all went to AD and Jrue (Holiday) over there and left me on an island,” Cunningham said — for the shot that gave New Orleans the lead for good.
Cunningham fired without hesitation. His coach watched with no reservation.
“I never say ‘Oh no, no, no’ with guys shooting the ball,” Gentry said. “It was a good shot. It was the right play. He was supposed to shoot it. He caught it in rhythm and was supposed to shoot it.”
Shots like those “build character and confidence,” Holiday said, but the Pelicans already have faith in Cunningham’s long-range shot. They’ve seen him work on it all season, seen him grow as a perimeter shooter.
There’s room for more growth. Cunningham, who shot 29.2 percent from 3-point range in February but is 6-of-14 on 3-pointers (42.9 percent) in March, admits he leaves “a lot” of triples short, a sign that he still has to get accustomed to getting his legs into long-range shots.
“Practices and games are totally different shots,” Cunningham said. “You’re running, you’re chasing, you’re pushing, then all of the sudden you got to shoot a 3 from all the way outside the arc, and that’s tough. This year, obviously I’m just getting used to it and kind of just letting it go.”
That was always part of the plan. The Pelicans see no reason for it to change.
“We got a lot of confidence (in) him,” Davis said. “When we swing it to him, we tell him to shoot it. Teams have to respect him. If not, he’s going to make you pay.”