Starting in the opening months of the 2020-21 NBA regular season, one man has stood atop draft boards through thick-and-thin — that man is Cade Cunningham.
The 6-foot-8 guard flipped the college scene upside down committing to Oklahoma State in November, but after the NCAA struck a tournament ban on the Pokes for prior recruiting violations, his decision was no done deal. Despite the tournament ban (which were later removed for the season), Cade stayed true to his colors, and as scouts have been grading, his loyalty proved to pave major pathways for his future.
Cade Cunningham enters the 2021 Draft Class as one of a select few guards possessing overbearing height and wingspan at his respective position. Playing strictly point guard under Mike Boynton this season, Cunningham ranked third-tallest on the team at a staggering 6-foot-8. Alongside Cunningham’s toppling height, the guard also yields an elite wingspan at the one expanding to 7-feet at its grandest. For perspective, Lebron James and Ben Simmons’ (6-foot-9 and 6-foot-11, respectively) both top out with 7-foot wingspans — needless to say, he’s in solid company. Cunningham’s build also rests well in the weight department filling out at 220 pounds with much more time to grow into his body. From a physical perspective, Cunningham is a special breed manning point guard.
For Cade Cunningham, his list of strengths run rampant.
Given Cade’s large frame at 6-foot-8, his ability as a ball-handler is exemplified tenfold by his uncanny playmaking at the point guard. With Cunningham, his stature, in general, allowed himself to easily overlook his defenders while in the process — crunching down every potential target in sight. Throughout the vast majority of Cunningham’s season, coaches concocted gameplans almost solely concocted to slow him down and force his teammates’ hand with the basketball. Cade did not see that as a problem.
Cade averaged 3.5 assists throughout the season where his gift to spread the ball was shared with the entire Cowboys roster.
Cunningham looked a step above his competition when it came to finding the open man. While working in transition, Cade is an eyes up player where he’s evaluated three or four options before he’s gone up for a lay-in, even if his points are coming wide open. As aforementioned, his constant pressure opposing coaches threw out must’ve created an advantage in Cade’s head. When Cade was simply sifting around the perimeter with the ball in his hands, there was zero chance only one defender’s focus was locked onto Cade. This meant in a plentiful number of scenarios Cade would rifle cross-court passes in the corner, sling full-court passes in transition, and look to kick out the ball when attacking the rim.
As Cade’s cards rest now, his work once paced through the mid-range and painted area became one of, if not, his biggest strong suit. Defenders would blatantly leave their opponent to hoard Cade once he was below the rim; in those situations, Cade made the correct read almost every time — electing to drive-and-dish for open perimeter shots.
+ Operating in the Pick & Roll
Cunningham’s knack in playmaking has a lot to do with getting in open space — his work in the pick and roll generated a sloe of these looks.
Cunningham is one of the most refined pick and roll draft prospects we’ve seen in the last three seasons, you take out Doncic and Trae Young, you’re talking to the tune of five years.
Defenders opted to stay back on screens way more than they should have. In doing so, Cade would shield himself behind the screen-setter for open top-of-the-key triples — those shots proved to be lethal. Though pick and roll statistics are not readily available, it is safe a judgment to assume his attempted triples off a screen dropped in right around his season average of 40 percent.
When defenders looked to go above the screen or flat out switch Cunningham’s instincts were to immediately rush inside for close and medium-range opportunities. If Cunningham safely got past his defender the play almost always ended in two points. In the case, both defenders collapsed onto him and his roll man had any sliver of daylight — he’d jam the ball perfectly amongst a pool of 6-footers and outstretched arms for an easy assist. If neither of the two original defenders moved onto Cunningham in time, as other opponents looked to switch and hedge he’d be on high alert just like in transition — waiting until the final second to make a read, the majority of the time taking the best option.
+ Stepback and Pull-up Jumper
When Cunningham was not given easy access to the floor via screens or transition offense, his stepback and pull-up became his most deadly weapon.
Cunningham’s stepback jumper became ol’ reliable. In terms of speed and distance covered, Cade’s stepback jumper is not on the lines of Luka Doncic — but the seeds have been planted. Whether working in the mid-range or perimeter if Cunningham was moving with the basketball and caught you flat-footed his stepback gave him a wide-open jumper every time.
The lack of a serious burst from Cade can lead to major issues whether it’s him being stuck to his man, or being forced into a difficult shot — his stepback gives himself a cop-out. If Cunningham’s signature stepback is transferable into the pros keeping him pinned from beyond the three will grow into a serious issue, and that problem will steadily lead to more and more looks inside.
On mid-range shots, Cunningham’s stepback was still prevalent but his tendency to stop-and-pop increased. Even with a full head of steam, Cade can put the breaks on, when he so chooses, in a flash. Cunningham can stop, shoot, and release before his then backpedaling defender can get his hand up — that’s scary.
In addition to his stepback and pull-up, his formula on stagnant possessions is also worth noting. When dribbling in place outside Cunningham oftentimes sits with the basketball until his defender lowers his hands for an anticipated drive. As he catches his defender’s in a daze, Cade uses a two-step, bread-and-butter move to get his shot off. Cade loves to run a left-to-right crossover leading into a between-the-legs move, for the defender — that’s a build-up to a drive, for Cade, he just gained pivotal inches for a triple.
+ Perimeter Shooting
With the culmination of Cade’s shooting off of pick and rolls, stepbacks, and between the leg moves, there’s still more untapped to Cade’s three-point game.
Cunningham blew the gasket off of all preseason predictions from downtown. Cade shot a clean 40 percent on 5.7 attempts per game
As a ball-handler, the indents Cunningham carved out through his bag of tricks would’ve made him a big enough threat already, but his off-ball game ticks his outside work up a few notches.
Working off the ball, it was difficult for Cade to not be on 24-hour lockdown as with only one true co-star in Avery Anderson, the return on giving up any sort of room did not meet the risk. On the off chance Cade was open off the ball, it normally came off of hiding in the corner and wing being removed from plays entirely. When Cade received a pass uncovered, he squared his feet and hoisted.
In even more of a testament to Cunningham’s potential shooting on-and-off the basketball, his 84.6 percent clip on taking 5.8 free throws a game is yet another indicator as to why his strong year outside wasn’t a fluke.
+ Finishing around the Basket
Cunningham’s job capitalizing around the basket is multi-faceted.
While driving inside on defenders, posterizers rarely happen for the 19-year-old but finishing through contact is a fairly common practice. One-on-one Cade usually had a three-to-five inch advantage over his opponent meaning drives inside could be forced with little repercussions. When larger defenders latch onto
When larger defenders latch onto Cunningham, his approach changes.
Cade has had a troubling resume of bumping into ongoing defenders but with no surprise obstacles, he can also be rather slithery when facing contact whether it’s through the use of a reverse layup, or outright weaving around them mid-air.
In halfcourt sets, Cunningham’s athleticism truly never is put on proper display, that changes in the downhill. Cade has some sneaky hops when he has nothing but the rim in front of him, he’s not jumping out of the gym as a “freak athlete” of sorts, though windmill dunks are in the mix for him. His flushes in transition really beg the question if any of that ferocity can seep into traditional sets.
Cade also has acquired a rather unknown postgame similar to Luka Doncic. At 6-foot-8, he uses his body to post up smaller defenders and deliver off of entry passes. His turnaround post hook delivered playing one-on-one on point guards, though with much peskier, stronger players sitting in the NBA, his hook may fizzle out.
In the first half of games, Cunningham showed some signs of weakness in a plethora of games, but as soon as the second half — hit it was game time.
Cade enters the 2021 Draft Class as one of the select players with a certified clutch gene. Cunningham orchestrated two game-winners in Oklahoma State’s regular-season edging Wichita State and Arkansas early in the season but his grit never faded.
Cunningham kept the Pokes in until the final seconds after trailing double-digits with inside five to play. In one of Cade’s biggest accolades, he played a lead role in dethroning the national champion Baylor Bears in the Big 12 semifinal ending the night with a game-high 25 points in an 83-74 victory. In the Big 12 final, Oklahoma State’s fate looked sealed down 10 points with under three to go, but after a stretch of two pull-up jumpers, the group was down just six with under a minute. Texas seemed to have put the game to bed staying above for a seven-point lead with 26 seconds but two major back-to-back triples from Cunningham kept the Cowboys in the game, ultimately falling in a free throw contest 91-86. In the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the same story panned out as the Pokes were down 48-34 to Oregon State. Cunningham then proceeded to score 13 of the Cowboys’ next 22 points including a pull-up triple to cut the game to one possession with 4 minutes to go. In the final possessions, Cade was absent from offensive possessions lingering at the opposing wing instead of operating with the ball. Regardless, that late-game opportunity would’ve never surfaced without Cade, and neither would the majority of Oklahoma State’s late-game closeouts.
+ Great Rebounder
Cade Cunningham’s physical profile gives him an immediate advantage hauling in rebounds, he uses those spare inches accordingly.
Cunningham ranked 2nd on Oklahoma State’s roster averaging 6.2 rebounds this season. In corralling boards, Cade’s approach is as simple as using good positioning and reaping the rewards. Don’t expect Cunningham to fly in for rebounds at the next level, but recording a 10-rebound game for him should not be a difficult task.
+ Defensive Versatility
At 6-foot-8 Cade Cunningham’s potential defensively is one of the top in the class.
As a lockdown defender, Cunningham doesn’t stick out as a mastermind stopping his man at the perimeter — but his range of positions he can defend make him one of the more intriguing prospects. In high school, Cade defended all five positions, for Oklahoma State, it was much of the same.
In terms of where Cunningham can be slotted, anywhere from the 1-to-4 position should be a strong suit for him. With proper weight training, his full build can escalate an extra ten or so pounds meaning his strength is not tapped out yet. For prospective coaches, Cade’s frame is mouthwatering as he can be spotted almost anywhere in a small-ball lineup and succeed.
Cunningham can be spotty in terms of exerting all his effort defensively, which is understandable due to his large role in the offense, but when he’s a full-force he can be a disrupter. Cade averaged 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks for the Cowboys this season becoming a chasedown artist and invigorator when the ball jarred loose. If there was a loose ball anywhere close to Cade on either end, he took a valiant crack at it every time.
– Mediocre Lateral Quickness
Cade was a solid defender on most occasions, but his decent lateral quickness did end up costing him at times.
Cunningham averaged 2.5 fouls per game this season off a blend of charges and errant fouls defensively. Cunningham struggled at times stacking up against faster guards leading to him being beaten in penetration situations and pick and rolls. Cade can make up ground on drives (as shown wide chasedown blocks) but he also will go for pretty wacky closeouts at times.
– Not Explosive, Can Lead to Spacing Issues
At 6-foot-8, it is not expected for Cunningham to display cheetah speed to likes of other point guards like Russell Westbrook, De’Aaron Fox, and John Wall, but his lack of an explosive gust of speed is a problem nonetheless.
In terms of creating initial space, Cunningham does an excellent job through the usage of screens, crossovers, and even spins to get by his man, but in cases where defenders stick right back onto Cade inside it can cause trouble.
The main concern with Cunningham’s slashing is turning the corner is no guarantee. When he presses the issue, it also leads to a large number of turnovers and offensive fouls. If Cade is ever trapped into space he’ll sometimes settle for contested jump shots and errant passes, that due to his pristine passes, tend to work out.
The speed issue will likely be his biggest bridge to mend if he wants to reach star status as a pro as with a large influx of elite perimeter defenders waiting his use of acceleration will be put to the test. If his agility never spikes up, an improvement with his stepbacks and pull-ups may also alleviate any issues here.
– Kindness can be his Weakness (though, green pastures are ahead)
Cade showed a plethora of all-star level passes in college but he also showed a big deal of turnovers.
Cunningham averaged more turnovers (4.0) than he did assists (3.5) with the Cowboys in large part due to forced passes. Cade is always about the big play. Given his elite court vision, he tended to dial-up loads of passes through seas of defenders. The nature of these contested passes isn’t the issue itself as those same successful passes are why he’s so highly touted — but it’s more on the IQ side.
If Cunningham can make smarter reads while moving in traffic as to where he should pass the basketball, turnovers will not be a problem.
To even plant a stronger case for Cade, Oklahoma State’s spacing rarely suited an NBA-level system as with perimeter-centric lineups almost absent from Boyton’s playbook, trying to stop Cunningham inside tended to be the better play. At the next level, a larger floor coupled with a three in the key violation will mean isolations will carry much less clogged possessions. With this, there will be a lot greater clarity as to pass or attack and with defenses’ focal points being way more spread out the turnovers should work themselves out.
Cade Cunningham has future star written all over him as he fits the bill for any number one player in a draft class. Cunningham’s unique blend of size, playmaking ability, perimeter shooting and defensive potentials makes him one of the more hyped-up point guard prospects we’ve seen in five years.
With his well-rounded game already fairly polished at 19-years-old, even in the worst possible scenario, Cunningham will be an extremely effective player at his given position.
If Cunningham can blossom his stepback and pull-up into signature moves that work at the next level his offensive capabilities soar into superstar levels.
His biggest determining qualities really rest in his ability to turn the corner on defenders and if he can keep up with speedier guards defensively. If those two traits pan out, there’s really no hole that is in his game.
Expect Cade to be a serious contributor from day one for prospective teams. There may be rough patches where his lack of burst could handicap his work on the isolation, but as an operator in the pick and roll, his talent is already at a very high level. Cade should be an extremely effective conductor of the offense working as a smart passer in drive-and-dish scenarios in addition to launching threes. Off the ball, his ability to catch-and-shoot with the basketball still makes him a serious target. In isolations, his stepback is not the fastest but if effective at the next level his shot creation skills will be solidified.
Evaluation: Future All-Star with Perennial All-Star Potential
At Cade’s floor, he’ll be regarded as one of the best point guards at the position and a player who slots second or third on a championship contender team — in essence, he’ll be an All-Star.
The biggest question (as raised earlier) hounds down on if he can get the corner on defenders, and if not, find a bread-and-butter solution to cross out the negative. Cade resembled shades of Jayson Tatum in Luka Doncic when it comes to creating their own shots as Tatum’s mid-range pull-up seems to have been mimicked by Cunningham and Doncic’s heavy usage of using his height for post turnarounds and stepbacks also appear in Cunningham’s game.
If Cunningham manages to cross the bridge of becoming an elite shot creator through his palate of moves or overall speed his real grade goes from an All-Star to a perinatal All-Star right on the cusp of superstardom.
As a playmaker, his issues of decision-making should be wiped due to the rule changes, shooters, and expanded floor to work with. In usages of pick and rolls, he projects as one of the top dogs in the league as his ability to shoot from the top-of-the-key, absorb contact on a drive, pull-up, or use his elite court vision to pass outside — he’ll be a serious issue in that department.
There is no real risk with selecting Cade Cunningham.
At his worst, he’ll be a gifted pick and roll maestro who can shoot a face-up three, attack, or pass. The mid-range may get lost in the noise if no signature move or speed is garnered. He can be used off the ball for catch-and-shoot triples or slash inside, and rebounding-wise will be at the top of his position. Defensively, his versatility of guarding 1-4 is zero question more of if he can take smaller defenders. Even if there is no signature move, speed, or lateral quickness, he’s still a clear-cut all-star who will dominate in the pick and roll — think a larger Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
At his best, Cunningham will be the primary reason someone hoists a Larry O’ Brien trophy, a superstar. His ability to do-it-all at 6-foot-8 makes puts him in exclusive company. Cade’s stepback jumper was lethal in college and at the next level should be able to do the same — if that is the case he’s a defensive nightmare for the next ten years.
Cade is a player that you build around. There are no boundary lines with his talents meaning that whoever you stack up with him will improve as a result. Cade’s pristine job as a passer will not take a hit translating to the next level and with his shot, the pick and roll game will be a breeze in the NBA. Cade works anywhere you’d like position-wise meaning that the potential lineup combinations will turn him into a chess piece.