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Dante Cunningham, a surprise acquisition who may stick around

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

On deadline day, the Nets surprised their fans with an interesting trade.

The Nets traded Rashad Vaughn to New Orleans for veteran small forward Dante Cunningham. Three days earlier, the Nets had gotten Vaughn and a second rounder from the Bucks for Tyler Zeller. And because Sean Marks used the Jeremy Lin disabled player exception to acquire Cunningham, the Nets wound up with a $1.82 million trade exception.

Not a bad couple of days.

The 6’8” Cunningham, a nine-year veteran, was averaging five points and 3.5 rebounds in 51 games, 24 of them starts, while shooting 32.4 percent from three. Vaughn was quickly cut, signed by the Magic to a 10-day contract and cut again.

Not a big week, but as things turned out, a successful one. The second rounder is likely to convey this year, not in 2020 and Cunningham, about to turn 31, is putting up his best numbers in four years. Since joining the Nets, Cunningham is putting up seven points a game, 4.3 rebounds and shooting 40.7 percent from three, in basically the same number of minutes, 21.9 for the Pelicans to 20.2 for the Nets.

And he’s played another role as well, as David Yapkowitz of Basketball Insiders writes this week. He’s the adult in the room, not a kid anymore.

“It’s definitely changed a little, I’m one of the older guys now. I think I’m top two oldest on the team,” Cunningham told Yapkowitz. “Guys are looking at me a little differently as in different questioning. Some guys may or may not have been through certain things and I’m kind of there to help fill in, to continue to give them an edge and push them.”

His coach likes the way he plays, too.

Discussing Cunningham before the Hornets game last month, Atkinson said, “What I’ve seen, I’ve been really happy with. He’s a man out there. He’s a veteran that understands how to play defense. He’s played the three, four and five in this league and can switch with them. He has a hit-first mentality of rebounding, and he’ll lay the wood to go get it . . . He’s not seven-foot, but he’s a strong dude.”

Atkinson, who reportedly lobbied for Cunningham, has used him at the 3, 4 and 5 since his arrival. You might see him around next year, too. Cunningham is an unrestricted free agent and Marks and Atkinson like having vets in the locker room and Cunningham likes what he sees.

“We have such fight regardless of if we’re down,” Cunningham told Basketball Insiders. “We always have an opportunity knowing that no one has their head down. There’s always someone ready to step up and get it done.”