Interviews: Cunningham, McMillan, Wright on Cunningham

Transcript of an interview conducted Feb. 19 with Portland Trail Blazers rookie forward Dante Cunningham.

Cunningham on the difference that playing four years of college ball makes for an NBA rookie:

Pretty much the biggest thing I notice, is not how easy, but kind of how I was able to absorb the different coaches. It’s a different way of learning up here. For my coach at Villanova to be able to instill the work ethic — do whatever the coach says; do what you do best; and all the different workouts he put us through — to be able to do that and then translate it up here, it just shows how important to get those four years of college, so you can mentally go through the stages of not playing, playing, sitting for two or three games, getting thrown out in the middle of a game at a crucial time — mentally, that can have an affect on you — so, to be able to do that, to be able to get through that and have the four years of college, to mentally get ready for that, I feel that’s a great booster.

On the difference between one year of college ball and four, as he and Blazers rookie forward Jeff Pendergraph did:

It comes back to just having that experience. I feel that I’ve been through everything basketball-wise on the court that I can have possibly gone through. But now it’s just at a faster speed. So, I’m dealing with the speed of everything. And, honestly, that’s not that hard to deal with, if you’re playing everyday. In the beginning, me and Jeff are out there, and everybody’s zooming past us — we’re kind of like deer in headlights. But now you can see as time goes on, the season goes on, me and Jeff are kind of out there and we’re looking like we know what we’re doing. We’re caught up to speed. We’re just learning all the little tricks now that maybe, someone who only stayed one or two years (in college), they’ve got to worry about speed or something new that happened on the court that they’ve never experienced before.

On who played the biggest part at Villanova in teaching him the game:

Villanova — we pride ourselves on being such a family university up there. I think I worked with every single coach at some point in my career, and they all have given me different aspects, different ways of looking at things. And to have such great coaches and great people around you, to build yourself as a person and as a player, that helps.

On how much he changed during his time at Villanova:

Tremendous. I went from a kid that was long and lanky and full of energy to a leader, a man that was motivated, driven to get everything done. I feel that being in the college for four years, you learn all of those different things.

On staying in touch with his college coaches:

Every time — mostly when I see them play on TV, I call them back. But when I’m kind of sitting around, not doing much, thinking about them, I definitely give them a call — the players, coaches. Players that I was only there for one year with, like Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry, so all those players, I definitely stay in contact with.

On comparing coaching at Villanova to Blazers’ staff:

They have a similarities, in the sense that they always want more from you. Regardless if you go out there and you have a great game, everyone else will kind of tell you, ‘You had a great game,’ they’ll tell you, ‘You did that wrong; you did that wrong.’ I like that. That’s making you better. You didn’t want someone that’s always going to tell you all the good that you’re doing; tell you that you’re the best, this, that and the other. You kind’ve want somebody that’s going to show you what you did wrong to help you and make you get better. To have someone always pushing you, it’s great.

On how different the NBA game was compared to college when the season began:

It is. It’s almost an inside track. You almost have to be involved; you have to be inside to actually understand what’s going on. And when you’re inside, you see the different way. Like, everyone here is refined to what they do; they’re tuned in. They do specific things great. You put five players on the floor that do five things great. And at this point, you see that on our team. Brandon Roy: He scores great; he moves the ball; he does whatever he needs to do for the team great. LaMarcus (Aldridge): Great shooter; he rebounds the ball well. Now we have Marcus Camby: He’s a great defender; he blocks shots great; rebounds great. So, it’s a culmination of all that to make a team, to make teams great.

On pinpointing a specific time when he no longer felt like a rookie:

I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was, but it has happened. The game has definitely slowed down. It’s kind of at that point where, not completely, but I’ve come to a point where everything is a normal speed now. It’s not a blur. When you first step out there, everything is like ‘Shoom, shoom, shoom, shoom, shoom.’ Now, it’s a normal speed. You anticipate when things are going to happen. It’s kind of like that feel you have in college, my junior or senior year, when I knew what was going to happen.

On adjusting to the NBA lifestyle and being on the road:

I understand where that can come into play. Just because, it’s kind of weird. When you’re on the road — well, with this team anyway — we’re all pretty much the same age or same area; not everyone’s married or has kids or anything. The older guys come to dinner with us. The younger guys, we’re out; go to the mall, go to the movies, something like that. We hang together. But when you come home, it’s kind of your family or girlfriend time. You do find yourself a lot in the house, kind of by yourself and that’s when you … have so much extra time. You’re not in school, so you don’t have school. You get back to the house for a 10 o’clock practice, you’re in the house by 1 (p.m.) or 1:30. You’re kind of like, ‘Hmm. What to do today?’ So you find hobbies and things like that to get into.

On having friends, family stay with him:

I’m all by myself. I’m mature enough to handle my own business. I found that when you have an entourage of people, it’s not necessarily you getting into trouble, it’s when your boys get into trouble that your name gets brought up. So, I found this is a good way to grow a little more and just mature.

On approaching his dreams:

Honestly, you do sit back during that time when you’re at home by yourself and you’re like, ‘You know, your dreams are actually starting to develop.’ All those times sitting in those programs with those coaches telling you that only one of you guys out of the 400 or 500 kids are going to make it, and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m the one.’ (Laughs) So, it’s definitely gratifying. It’s definitely something that you just have to keep in check, to let it fester and say that you’ve made it. You haven’t made it. It’s just the beginning. You’ve got to keep working like you’re not even here.

On who he’s closest to on the team:

Me and Jeff are definitely the closest. I definitely bonded a lot with him — well, he wasn’t on the road with us for the first half of the time. Me and LaMarcus and Brandon were all pretty cool. I’ve definitely grown with them a lot.

Transcript of an interview conducted Friday with Villanova men’s basketball coach Jay Wright.

Wright on Cunningham’s growth from a freshman to a senior:

He came in as a guy that was really not skilled in back to the basket and able to play in the low post. He came in as a question mark. But great character, great work ethic. And besides not having a position, he was a basketball player. He made the right pass. He made the right play. He’d get in position to get the big rebound. Even though he didn’t have a position offensively, he could defend any position, literally from 1-5. So, right away, you could see what kind of an asset he was. And then he improved his jump-shooting ability, ballhandling and passing. By the end, it was kind of the same thing. He didn’t have a position. But he could play offensively with his back to the basket in the low post; he could play with the ball against pressure; he could face the basket and shoot jumpers; he could drive it; he could make plays — he became an all-around basketball player.

On Cunningham developing as a person:

Well, first of all, he came in with incredible character because of his Mom and Dad. That was from the start. But he really developed from being kind of a simple kid all the way through to his senior year to really being a mature man that was the leader of our program. And then, a guy that looked at more than just being a pro. He was proud of getting his degree. He was proud of being a role model. He took pride in being a leader in our program. By the end, he became everything that we wanted a basketball player to be. … And a spokesman off the court for our team.

On his best Cunningham story:

When he came in as a player, he was like any normal kid. He would do what we asked him to do, but he wouldn’t do anything extra on his own — but he would do anything we asked him to do. So, what we would try to teach him is that motivation’s gotta come from within you to be a man; to be a player. Somewhere between his junior and senior year, he went to a big man camp. And I was in the office. He came back from a red-eye (flight) from Las Vegas — he got back at like 6 in the morning. And I was in my office, which overlooked the practice courts. And it was like 6:30 in the morning. He got right off the plane and came right back to the gym. And no one was in there. I look out my window, and he’s out there by himself, shooting free throws. I came down there and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I just flew in and I’m tired, but I’ve got to make 100 free throws and I want to get it done before I go to bed.’ And that was it. No one’s around, he didn’t expect anyone to see him doing it. But that’s the kind of commitment you’ve got to have in the pursuit of discipline. And from there, he just continued.

Transcript of an interview conducted Feb. 20 with Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan.

McMillan on seeing the evolution in forward Dante Cunningham:

I love his game. I love his attitude on the floor. I think he comes with a physical presence that is needed in this game. Not only can he play that way, he brings that to the floor, and that’s half the battle in this league. Everybody can play, but … I think he plays winning basketball because of the way he plays. He’s not afraid to mix it up and guard. He’s not starstruck. He’s not intimidated by anybody. And he will go at the best player, even on his own team. So, I’ve seen him switch out on Brandon (Roy) and try and get down and guard Brandon as a rookie. Last night, we put him on Rasheed Wallace — he didn’t hesitate to front and grab him. A couple nights ago, we had him on (Los Angeles Clippers center Chris) Kaman; denied him the ball. Earlier, we had him on (San Antonio center) Tim Duncan. So, he’s fearless. He’s not starstruck. Some of the guys who come in this league, they look at a (Denver forward) Carmelo (Anthony) and they won’t touch him — they want to be friends with him. It’s like, they want them to like them, so you don’t touch them and grab them. You want them to speak to you in the summertime, so they don’t touch them — he doesn’t play that way.

On Cunningham’s smoothness compared to rookie forward Jeff Pendergraph’s raw style:

I told him this when we drafted him and before: He has a pretty decent jump shot. If he knocks down his jump shot consistently, he’s definitely a starter in this league. And he’s been shooting the ball well. Everything else — his IQ, his feel — is right where it needs to be. His jump shot because of who he’s playing with, he’s going to get his shots. He will knock them down. He just needs to continue to work on it. And he’s a rotation player in this league.

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