Dante Cunningham has cultivated a reputation.
The guy who will do anything.
Want someone who will defend multiple positions, routinely flipping between spots in the same game? He’s on it.
Want someone who can start a game one night at small forward and come off the bench the next night at power forward? No problem and no complaints.
“I want to be the Swiss Army Knife, so I want to have every tool in the pocket and be able to help in any way,” Cunningham said, while gesturing his hands on an imaginary steering wheel. “If you need me to drive the bus so we can win: beep beep!”
It’s partly why coach Alvin Gentry tapped Cunningham to get the first crack as the Pelicans’ starting small forward this season, a coveted role playing alongside former All-Stars Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday.
He’ll get his first opportunity in the preseason opener against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in the Smoothie King Center. While Gentry said he won’t play the starting lineup their full allotment of minutes, he expects them to log significant time together, hoping to build chemistry in an abbreviated five-game exhibition season.
“Defensively, I’m able to help (the starters) out on the boards,” Cunningham said. “I can also switch out on a big with a guard, and things of that nature. Offensively, I can relieve some stress by not letting my guy sink off of me into the paint. You have to kind of stay out on me, unless you want me to shoot open 3s.”
For most of Cunningham’s career, that wouldn’t have been much of a risk. But in the past two seasons the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward has transformed into a perimeter threat.
After making three total 3-pointers in his first seven seasons, Cunningham grew into the Pelicans’ most accurate 3-point shooter last season, converting 39.2 percent (71-of-181) from beyond the arc. Cunningham set a personal goal to shoot 50 percent or better from the field, a realistic improvement, considering his connected on 48.5 percent of his total attempts a year ago.
“(Cousins and Davis) are going to attract two or three people every time they have the ball,” Cunningham said. “So, you have to be ready and willing to shoot the ball.”
The growth is indicative of what the Pelicans appreciate about Cunningham and why general manager Dell Demps has signed him three different times since 2014. When he’s told what areas he needs to improve upon, Cunningham usually finds a way to improve.
He’s the ultimate “good soldier”, according to Gentry.
“I love the game of ball,” Cunningham said. “I love to play. So whatever I have to do if it’s guard 2s, or I have to guard 3s or I have to guard 4s, I’m willing to help the team in any way possible.”
Despite suffering a hip flexor earlier in camp that kept him out of Saturday’s open scrimmage, Cunningham said he’s completely healthy and ready to play for Tuesday’s game. Gentry expects him to log 15 minutes with the starters, hoping he can build some chemistry as a member of the Pelicans’ best unit.
But, Cunningham would’ve been fine playing with anyone they asked him to play with.
“Honestly, we have a lot of great guys here and we are all working to get on the court and be a better team,” Cunningham said. “It was just a situation where everything just fell that direction. It’s nothing about me saying, hey I want to be a starter on this team. I just want to make the team better and help the team gets to the playoffs. Whatever coach needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”