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If you followed the NCAA basketball circuit, or if you’re simply a sad Raptors fan that spammed the Tankathon simulator once the season went off the rails, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Cade Cunningham’s name.
The 19 year-old phenom from Arlington, Texas set the world of college hoops on fire in his lone season with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and dating back even earlier than that, he was already garnering praise as a future NBA star.
After transferring to Monteverde High School in Florida, a school renowned for taking potential college recruits and prepping them for an eventual pro basketball career, Cunningham went on to shine for what many considered to be the best high school basketball team in American history. Most notably, that team also included forwards Scottie Barnes and Moses Moody, who are expected to join Cunningham in the 2021 NBA Draft class.
The three of them attended separate colleges, and Cunningham wound up with Oklahoma State, where he averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.6 steals while shooting a little under 44 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. He was able to showcase an elite all-around offensive arsenal and had a temendous season, leading many to speculate that he will be the number one selection when July’s draft rolls around.
With the draft lottery just one week away, it’s time to kick off a recurring series for Prospect Profiles, highlighting some of the draft prospects within the Raptors’ selection range and what they could bring to the table. Of course, they only have a 7.5 percent chance to land the first overall pick, but there’s no better place to start than at the top.
On that note, it’s time to answer the overarching question: who is Cade Cunningham?
Shot Taker, Shot Maker
If there’s one thing you need to know about Cade Cunningham, it’s that he will not be afraid of the moment.
In the NCAA, players can typically be clunky offensively when trying to learn plays, or are just learning how to utilize their bodies on the court. Cunningham differs from the pack, playing with a fluidity to his game that is rarely seen.
In the highlight package above, there are quite a few things that stand out about Cunningham’s game. He gets his buckets in a variety of ways, and virtually anywhere from the floor.
Another notable aspect is just how composed Cunningham looks on the floor. He is in complete control of his body as he shakes defenders for easy buckets. It is extremely rare to see players at the collegiate level look as smooth and comfortable as he does on the floor, and it’s a big reason why scouts are so high on him.
To have a natural ability to make shots does not come easy. For Cunningham, it’s a big strength, and as he continues with his eyes set on an NBA career, an ability to take over games is something that can have a franchise-altering impact. Anywhere he lands, he will have the ability to make his presence known immediately, and that infusion of star talent will drastically raise the ceiling of whoever is fortunate enough to draft him.
IQ, Playmaking, and Court Vision
What stands out about Cade’s game is how natural of a playmaker he looks to be at times not only for himself, but for others. He has a great instinct and feel for the game that allow him to make the right play almost all the time.
In college, the year is typically about working through your mistakes and understanding it’s about the growth long-term. Cunningham wants to be the best he can be right now, and he was consistently on another level from his competition both skill-wise and mentally.
The way that he zips cross-court passes with ease, or looks incredibly comfortable running the pick-and-roll with his teammates is rare. For a lot of NBA players, let alone NCAA players, that isn’t something that comes until much later in their careers as they gain time and experience. Kyle Lowry, for example, is a much better playmaker at the age of 35 than he was at the age of 25, and his teams are better off for it.
What Cunningham brings to the table in this regard is special, and it should only continue to get better with time.
Size and Versatility
Standing at six-foot-eight and 220 pounds with a seven-foot wingspan, Cunningham is capable of playing virtually any position on the floor at any given time. He slots in most as a combo guard due to his scoring and playmaking, yet has the size and strength to hoop with power forwards and centers.
He uses his size on the floor well, especially on the defensive end. He has the ability to play on the ball as a defender and disrupt plays using his lengthy arms, but also has terrific awareness. He is a rare combination of size, speed and strength that the NBA has rarely seen.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy used Cunningham often as a roaming free safety on the floor, patrolling the middle of the paint to rotate over to where the ball is swung. He is able to use his first step and defensive awareness to help off the ball and contest the shot frequently.
It’s this sort of defensive IQ at such a young age that wins coaches over, and being able to guard anywhere on the floor is a huge plus. Cunningham really does project to be a player who has the physical tools to do it all, and he’s certainly applying it thus far.
NBA Comparison: Luka Dončić
For the record, I’m not just saying this because Cade said so himself. He really is that skilled.
While it’s difficult to compare anybody to the 22-year-old Slovenian phenom, in terms of offensive skillset, Dončić has nearly zero flaws in his game. He does almost everything at an extremely high level, and it’s not just the skill; he is an incredibly intelligent player who knows how to use his body and skill in different ways to break down defenders.
Offensively, Cunningham boasts a similar repertoire in that he generally doesn’t have any glaring flaws to his game. Shot selection has been an issue at times, but in the NBA, it should be fairly easy for him to clean that up. Defensively, Cunningham has just as much to offer. For Dončić, it’s been an issue at times for him to assert himself on this end because of the sheer scoring load he has to carry. Depending on the situation he lands in, Cunningham may not have to sacrifice as much on this end in order to develop as a two-way player
The other big aspect: maturity level. Luka has been playing (and dominating) against grown men since he was 15 years old, and came into the league as an experienced professional in his own right. The way he carries himself day in and day out, the passion and joy he plays the game with is infectious, and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks feel that.
Even in his interview with JJ Redick and Tommy Alter for the Old Man & The Three podcast, Cunningham gives thoughtful answers, and understands the position he’s in and doesn’t take it for granted. There are plenty of guys his age with all the talent in the world that buy into their own hype and coast on natural talent, and that inevitably ends up being their downfall.
Cunningham is so different in this regard; he knows he hasn’t accomplished anything yet, and the work is only beginning. He’s been grooming himself for an NBA career from the age of 16, and the greatest heights are only yet to come.
One thing is for certain: Cade Cunningham is a serious, can’t-miss talent, and whoever has the fortune of drafting him next month is going to be thanking their lucky stars for a long time.