6:56 AM ET

Mike Schmitzspan.

STILLWATER, Okla. — Cade Cunningham is not a typical first round pick.

He doesn’t defy physics like Zion Williamson did at Duke. He’s not someone like Ben Simmons at LSU. He’s not loaded with traditional assets like Anthony Davis at Kentucky. He’s not a speedster like John Wall at England, nor an elite baseball player like Kyrie Irving at Duke.

Like Luca Doncic before him, Cunningham faces the question of whether he will be a star at the next level. Is he a player or the head defender? Is he a very good player on a winning team or a perennial All-Star who can change a franchise?

Why? With a physical talent like Jonathan Cuminga, a unicorn like Evan Mobley, a gifted one like Jaylen Green and an energetic player like Jaylen Suggs in the top 5…. Is Cunningham a better candidate?

I spent a few days tracking down Cunningham himself and analyzing the film with him. Here’s what I’ve learned that helps me answer these questions:

Can Cunningham lead an NBA offense?

There was still 1:25 on the clock at the scrimmage at the end of practice, and the starters were 5 points behind. Isaac Ice Skel, a junior guard at Oklahoma State, watched the 19-year-old Cunningham from the sidelines.

The last two minutes, you know it’s time! The rock screamed.

His teammates and coaches know full well that Cunningham is the closest the Cowboys come to getting his late hits, often coming in the first half and then turning things around in critical moments. According to statistics and information from ESPN, he is averaging 12.2 points in the second half and extension this season, while hitting 11 of 23 (.478) points in the final two minutes of regulation. He’s already made two jumpers in the final 30 seconds that led to wins, and has forced many other good players to drop pieces for a Cowboys team that better not go 12-6 because of his mediocre talent.



Cade Cunningham stops in the final 30 seconds of the game and pops a jumper under pressure to break the 77-77 tie and take the lead for Oklahoma State.

Every time the game is over, I try to slow down and be one with the game and be on one point, and I think that has helped me, Cunningham said. Every time there is pressure, or whatever you call it, it feels like you have more choices.

Cunningham is quickly proving to recruiters and NBA executives that he has subtle star power. He doesn’t play over the edge and doesn’t have the opportunity to be lightning fast, but as one NBA executive said: Cade has that gene. It looks like another playmaker that will not only help Cunningham get to the top, but also become a star at the next level.

I want to be the hero of the game, you know? Luka Doncic told me during the 2017 FIBA Eurobasket. Every time, I wanted the ball in my hands from the start.

Cunningham is not a copy of Doncic. There has never been a player as young as the Slovenian prodigy. Donchik is longer and plays with a different level of aggression and emotion. When Doncic was Cunningham’s age, he was in the midst of a Rookie of the Year campaign in which he averaged 21.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists. A late game against a Big 12 opponent is not the same as a game outside the Euroleague in Serbia.

2 Connected

But there are tentative parallels between the two. Despite his long list of awards, Doncic was not satisfied with his speed and ability to effectively score points for NBA-caliber athletes. It worked in the Euroleague, but will it work in the NBA? We’ll look at Cunningham’s work on Doncic, but one thing Luca Nyers hasn’t fully addressed is his story of clutch moments. In the skill-based NBA, it’s essential that the elites who close the door have confidence and take down the final 3. Watching Cunningham live during games against TCU, Texas and at practice, it’s clear he gets it. He is calm on the court and rarely changes his face, even in the most tense moments, which bodes well for his future in the NBA.

I think he’s unbeatable in these situations, said his high school coach Kevin Boyle, who has also coached Simmons, RJ Barrett, Joel Embiid, Irving and many other Montverde Academy stars. I think you’ll get the best out of him in the clutch. I don’t think he’ll be scared.

Can Cunningham create athletes in relation to the NBA?

Like Donciccia, Cunningham was described as slow and methodical with the ball and didn’t always have the speed of penetration to strike quickly against elite defenders. He’s had trouble with long-time players like Texas’ Kai Jones and Greg Brown, and Cunningham is shooting just 40% from two against teams with a winning percentage over .500. The 2-point rate is in the bottom five of our top 100 – a rarity for a top pick.

The lack of space in which he has to operate reminds me of Jaylen Brown’s first season at Cal, where he hit just 48% inside the arc while playing in a no-hitter with two traditional big shots that gobbled up space. Still, his critics will wonder if Cunningham can go to the basket at the end of the game against an elite NBA defender – but he doesn’t care.

I’ve played with a lot of guys in the NBA, Cunningham said. You can ask the guys, I guess. I’m glad to know who I’m playing against. I’m fine. I’m fine.

Even on a smaller college court with a supporting cast in the midfield, Cunningham is the most effective isolation player in the NCAA, scoring 1.26 points per possession. And he managed to get through every scouting report to stop him, thanks to his bouncing shot, his size, and his understanding of how to send a defender’s momentum in different directions. He’s already a very talented three-point shooter for his age, and the fact that Cunningham watches a lot of Doncic’s films also helps him.



Cade Cunningham danced on his defender and fired in a three-pointer to extend Oklahoma State’s lead in the closing minutes.

Speed and athletic ability are certainly great qualities, but Luca just knows how to play the game, Cunningham said. He knows how to bend you to one side, give you a kick and get his way. Someone who is harder to love than someone who is super-sporty.

The teams that chose Doncic largely underestimated his size and the difference in distance between the Euroleague and the NBA. Doncic, in third grade, is almost everywhere thanks to his solid frame, misdirection, instincts and skills. Cunningham’s working on this, too. While he’s probably not as tall as the 6-foot-2 on the list, Cunningham appears to be 6 feet tall, and has broad shoulders, 220 pounds, huge arms, and a wingspan of about 6 feet. Cunningham’s measurements do not differ much from Kawhi Leonard’s at the same stage.

Given his size and position in the NBA, Cunningham should have no problem getting to his spots. The question is whether it is sporty enough. is too simple and outdated in the current game. As we saw in 2018 with Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III against Doncic, and as we will likely see in 2020 with Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman against LaMelo Ball or even Tyrese Haliburton, teams are starting to focus on draft length and explosiveness in terms of size, skill, and mentality. With those reservations in mind, we’ll see if NBA teams adapt to Cunningham.

What is his position in the NBA?

Some NBA evaluators and analysts have wondered if Cunningham wouldn’t be better suited on a wing like Chris Middleton than on a playmaker like Doncic, especially since he’s very quick with the ball.

I like to have the ball in my hands when I play, Cunningham said when asked where he sat. On the next level, that’s what I’m aiming for. If I’m there on my first day, I’ll try to prove I can do it.



Cade Cunningham throws the ball through traffic to Rondel Walker for the Oklahoma State try to keep Oklahoma State in the game.

A look at Cunningham’s assists (54) and his turnover rate (63) would lead most people to believe he’s better as an offensive player and secondary playmaker. He admits he’s too loose with the ball and needs to assess possession better, which was evident in his performance against Kansas. It’s no longer the European Football League, Cunningham’s brother Cannen, the Oklahoma team’s assistant coach, told me after the game.

But context is incredibly important if you want to take Cunningham to the next level. Cunningham played primarily in bands 4 and 5. It wasn’t until the summer, at the start of his junior season, that he switched to ball full time. Watch him practice before the game or during practice, and he does practice sessions with the big boys after the game. From his two-handed jumping hook play to the occasional vertical attempt, he still has some great man habits.

But Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton said he noticed Cunningham’s leadership instincts and maturity when he first assessed him at age 14 and thought he was an unsigned senior.

This kid is doing the right thing at 14, Boynton said. He knows how to cut, he knows how to block, he knows how to pass with both hands. What I saw when I thought he was a senior, I would never attribute to a freshman.

Cade Cunningham was an impressive colleague. To what extent will his game be televised in the NBA? AP Photo/Su Ogroki

Cannen played with Cade in the U16 on the Nike EYBL circuit, as opposed to the much talked about U17, to correct his mistakes as a leader. Finally, Cade Cunningham was the first quarterback of one of the most famous high school teams at Montverde Academy (Florida) (25-0) and was in charge of distributing the ball between pawns thrown in the first round Scotty Barnes (Florida), Moses Moody (Arkansas), Day’Ron Sharp (UNC) and Caleb Houstan (Draft 2022).

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Wednesday 17.
February – Rockets v 76ers, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
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Friday, 19.
February – Bulls v 76ers, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
– Rockets v Rockets, 8 p.m. on ESPN
– Jazz v Clippers, 10 p.m. on ESPN
Saturday, 20.
February – Heat v. Lakers, 8:30 p.m. on ABC
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Prior to his senior season at Montverde, Cunningham was named MVP of the Nike EYBL. He averaged 23.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.0 turnovers, while shooting 64% from 2s and 35% from 3s, based on 18 games in our DraftExpress database. He picked up that momentum at the Under-19 World Cup, where he averaged 20.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 2.4 steals, 1.5 blocks and 3.4 turnovers in 40 minutes, as the best hope for a team that understood everything from Tyrese Haliburton to Evan Mobley to Jaylen Green.

From what we’ve seen elsewhere, the real conclusion is that Cunningham’s best skill is his passing game. However, Oklahoma’s national ranking (165th with a 3-point percentage) has made the lanes narrow and Cunningham less able to help. Teams also started making jokes about all the pick-and-rolls Cunningham was doing, snatching the ball out of his hands and challenging him to take a supporting shot.

He chose a path that would make him better, Boynton said. You have to feel it at least a little. You should be able to look at this game and see its effects.



Cade Cunningham, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, scored 29 points and led Oklahoma State to an 83-78 victory over Oral Roberts.

It’s important to ask yourself what Cunningham would look like if he were surrounded by more complete players like his fellow Suggs, who is in Gonzaga’s top five. Too often Cunningham’s stabbing passes, arm kicks or perfectly timed cross jumps don’t appear in the assistant column. Like Doncic, Cunningham is already good at hitting the weak corner of the pick-and-roll, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. He also reads the game well, as a longtime NBA veteran who speaks through screen reads.

Cunningham is the son of a former Texas Tech football champion. He has a quarterback background and compares himself to young Patrick Mahomes on the grill. Surrounded by NBA shooters and a headshot threat, Cunningham should flirt with double digits at the highest level.

And even when all else fails and he feels more comfortable on the wing, Cunningham’s size, accuracy and game insight make him invaluable there. He can basically go from 1 to 4 in offense like OSU does, which should make him attractive to the top teams, regardless of their size.

Like Boynton said, whoever’s on your list, Cade fits.

Can it correct its real weaknesses?

For Cunningham to reach his long-term potential and even be mentioned in the same breath as Doncic at the next level, he still has plenty of room for improvement. He is too relaxed on defense and doesn’t always use his instincts, length and size consistently. As the pressure on the ball increases and he gets off the ball more, his hitting power increases. Cunningham described himself as a defensive back, noting that he made several A-level appearances and also made several F-level appearances.

This is another case where, 24/7, he was locked up, Cunningham said we saw a clip of him being hit with drops. I didn’t have to pose, even though I’m in trouble. I got a little stoned.



Cade Cunningham’s block on defense leads to a stop by Avery Anderson III on offense.

This is partly due to his offensive role and early foul trouble, but becoming a consistent defender of possession is a top priority for Cunningham, especially since he’s showing encouraging signs of slumping in the game (1.4 full and 1.0 block per game).

He has his ups and downs, his brother says.

While Cunningham’s calculated approach is a plus, he can also play with more consistent aggression, run less and get in the game when needed. There will be times when those late heroes don’t come because he waited too long to try and throw a punch.

I really need to tie two halves together. That’s right, Mr. Cunningham.

He can add more nuance as a finisher, rather than the excessive fumbling that often occurs in isolated situations, and sharpen the consistency of his catching and shooting jumpers. He also needs to buckle down by taking too many laps live. But that’s a normal criticism of 19 year olds. In fact, Cunningham is as close as you can get to a full perspective – someone who should fit perfectly into the modern game.



Cade Cunningham scored 18 points, including a steal and a slam, in Oklahoma State’s 84-71 victory over Oakland on Saturday.

Use the top 10 players according to ESPN #NBARank Preseason as a barometer. Besides outfielders LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, James Harden and Nikola Jokic are the players with the most skill and confidence. The best players on the NBA perimeter can shoot 3’s on the dribble, make every pick-and-roll read and not shrink when the lights are brightest. Cunningham fits that bill perfectly. If his average is anywhere between Luka Doncic and Chris Middleton, he’s definitely a better choice.

Coming off a 2020 draft that raised so many questions about the resumes and backgrounds of potential candidates like Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball, Cunningham was a breath of fresh air for NBA officials. He’s not very expressive on the field, but he’s a young man with a history of wins and obvious maturity. He’s already a father and is handling the game with discipline. He emphasizes mindfulness, breathing and meditation.

And there’s a quiet, competitive instinct in him. When TCU fans started chanting praises every time Cunningham touched the ball after a lackluster first half, he burst into action. Take three steps back, drive to the edge, run down the corridor – it all ends with looks and nonsense in response to the student section and the Horned Frogs bench.



Cade Cunningham scored 17 points all over the field in the game against TCU.

If you take a closer look at his situation in Stillwater, understand his intangibles, and analyze what works in today’s NBA, Cunningham is at the top of this project. And after what we’ve been through, he’s more than capable of doing whatever comes his way.

Mr Cunningham said it would be difficult to find anyone else who was as versatile and who could have such an impact on the game. Yes, I feel like a better player, but that’s how I should feel. I know there are a lot of other good players, but I think that’s me.

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