Jared Cunningham gets a leg up on making Cavs roster

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

PHILADEPHIA -- Near the start of training camp David Blatt declared that the Cleveland Cavaliers planned to keep one of their camp invitees on the final roster to start the season. That competition heated up considerably on Thursday night.

First, Jared Cunningham scored a game-high 31 points on 8-for-10 shooting (with going 13-for-16 from the foul line) with four rebounds and three assists in the Cavs’ 115-114 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Before Thursday, Cavs coach David Blatt had been reticent to shower praise on any one specific player on a non-guaranteed contract. They have six others in camp other than Cunningham in Quinn Cook, Austin Daye, Nick Minnerath, D.J. Stephens, Michael Dunigan and Chris Johnson and whenever one player’s name would come up from a reporter, Blatt would be sure to mention how the rest of the invitees were performing in his same breath.

He broke that pattern for Cunningham.

“I thought that without question, Jared he sort of separated himself tonight,” Blatt said. “He was exceptional. And that’s what opportunities are for. You got a chance and you grab it and he made good use of it today.”

Said Cunningham: "It was just the opportunity that was there. Some of the guys that played yesterday sat out today and Coach told us there was going to be a lot of minutes for the younger players. So I just went out there and just took advantage of the opportunity and I just hooped."

Cunningham’s breakout performance came a night after Daye scored 12 points (including going 4-for-6 from 3) against the Atlanta Hawks to lead the invitees and a couple days after Cook was the most impressive out of the group in the team’s instrasquad scrimmage when he had 15 points and four assists.

Things got even more interesting in the Cavs’ postgame locker room in Philly, however, where Dionte Christmas had joined the team for the flight back to Cleveland.

Christmas will take a physical on Friday and if he passes, will replace the Dunigan in camp as teams are only allowed a maximum 20 players in camp and Christmas would make that number 21 for the Cavs unless someone is waived. Dunigan, who played for the Cavs’ D-League affiliate Canton Charge, received a last-minute spot at camp after Tristan Thompson failed to report. Yahoo first reported the Cavs’ interest in Christmas.

As good as Cunningham -- a 6-4 combo guard who has already had cups of coffee in the NBA with Dallas, Atlanta, Sacramento and the Clippers -- looked against the Sixers, Christmas provides another formidable option for the Cavs to consider. He played for Paris-Levallois in France last year and the Phoenix Suns the season before that.

While the Cavs’ 0-2 start to the preseason has been hard to make much sense of, considering how many players have been sitting out with injuries, Blatt said the exhibition schedule is vital for the camp invitees.

“I think they’re very important,” Blatt said. “And they’re helpful for us too because we do have a roster spot and with the injury situation being as it is, we got to be cognizant of the fact that we may need even other players. We’re watching these guys closely and this is a chance for them to show themselves.”

That was Blatt hinting that Cleveland may not only carry one, but two training camp invitees into the regular season if they can’t iron out a contract extension with Thompson before then.

“You always got to be aware of the possibilities,” Blatt said.