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Cade Cunningham Can Do It All. But Can He Anchor an NBA Team?

Oklahoma State’s freshman point forward could help almost any NBA team right now. But does he have a high enough ceiling to justify being the top pick in the 2021 NBA draft?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Cade Cunningham is the most valuable kind of basketball player. The Oklahoma State freshman is a 6-foot-8 forward who can play on and off the ball and defend all five positions. It’s hard to find a good NBA comparison because the players at the next level with his skill set are virtually all superstars. He’s the safe choice to be the no. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. But just because Cunningham is already this good doesn’t necessarily mean that he eventually will be great.

Like Anthony Edwards, the no. 1 pick in last year’s draft, Cunningham didn’t go to a traditional basketball powerhouse. He chose Oklahoma State because his older brother was hired as an assistant coach at the school. There isn’t another top-50 recruit on the roster. The difference between Cunningham and Edwards, who struggled on a bad Georgia team last season, is that the former is polished enough to win games by himself in college. He leads the Cowboys (13-6, no. 23 in the AP poll) in points (18.6 per game) and steals (1.4), and is second in rebounds (6.1) and assists (3.5), and third in blocks (1.0). He plugs holes on both ends of the floor, and closes games late on offense.

The most impressive thing about Cunningham’s game is that there aren’t any real holes in it. He can shoot, score, pass, rebound, and defend. It isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially for a perimeter player with so much size. Most teenagers with his physical tools are able to cut corners at lower levels of the game, and then have to spend years improving their weaknesses and making up for lost time against better competition in the NBA. Cunningham has skipped that part of the process. He’s a diamond without any flaws at just 19 years old. He could help almost any NBA team right now.

There’s not much that a one-and-done season in college can do for him. Cunningham looks like a seasoned professional who’s been dropped into the middle of games full of raw teenagers. Everyone else is running around without much of a plan, while he’s patiently getting wherever he wants to on the floor. The defense rarely bothers him. Cunningham knows what he wants to do before he even makes a move.

Passing is his best skill, even though he averages more turnovers (4.0 per game) than assists. There’s not a lot of outside shooting around him at Oklahoma State to keep defenses from crowding him. The Cowboys are no. 258 in the country in 3-point attempts per game. Cunningham is the basketball version of Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech: He will get better when he plays with better targets at the next level. The way that he uses his size and feel for the game to pass out of the pick-and-roll simply can’t be taught:

Cunningham made his name playing for Team USA at the 2019 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup the summer before his senior year of high school. There was an incredible amount of talent on the roster, including three other likely top-5 picks (Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, and Jalen Green) this summer. But there was no question who made everything go. Cunningham averaged 11.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.7 assists in 23.5 minutes per game, controlling tempo, directing traffic, and making sure everyone felt involved in the offense.

The interesting thing about his style of play is that he doesn’t assert himself as much as you might expect given his reputation or the fact that he averages almost twice as many points as OSU’s second-leading scorer. He’s a deliberate player who spends huge chunks of the game methodically probing his way into the paint and then making the extra pass to teammates who can’t do much with the ball. It can be frustrating to watch on a team without as much talent as Team USA.

Part of the issue is that Cunningham isn’t a great athlete. He can’t just blow by defenders in one step. He needs time and space to get into his moves, and depends on size, rather than speed, to create separation. One reason he’s so good in the pick-and-roll is that the screen gives him the room to maneuver in ways that he can’t always create on his own. A telling comparison is Texas freshman Greg Brown III, a likely first-round pick who’s one of the best athletes in the draft. There were times in their two matchups this season when Brown made Cunningham look like he was playing in cement shoes:

That lack of athleticism won’t doom the Oklahoma State star at the next level, because basketball is much more than a running and jumping contest. It just removes a lot of his margin for error. Cunningham is wired like a traditional point guard in that he doesn’t look for his own shot until crunch time. But because he can’t get around people he often ends up taking contested jumpers off the dribble when he does. His best move is rising and firing over smaller defenders:

Cunningham’s jumper has bailed him out of some tough spots this season. He has been lights out from the perimeter: 42.9 percent from 3 on 4.5 attempts per game, and 84.6 percent from the free throw line on 5.4 attempts per game. The issue has been his efficiency from 2-point range. He’s shooting only 42.9 percent on 2s on 9.6 attempts per game. Those are the shots that he would probably prefer to turn into passes, but they are also the ones that he will have to take as a first option in the NBA.

The gold standard for the type of offensive player that Cunningham can become is Luka Doncic. Doncic, like Cunningham, is a big (6-foot-7) point forward without elite athleticism. The difference is that Doncic is a career 54.1 percent shooter from 2-point range in the NBA. He’s a gifted scorer with the footwork and touch to score with defenders draped on him. That ability, in turn, attracts so much defensive attention that it creates open shots for everyone else.

Cunningham may have to find different ways to be effective. He’s a better two-way player and spot-up shooter than Doncic, and can help his team win even when he’s not dominating the ball. Oklahoma State plays a lot of zone, but Cunningham has shown flashes of elite defense both on and off the ball in man. He has even had some stretches protecting the rim as a small-ball 5:

Cunningham’s versatility means that he will be a really good NBA player even if he averages only 15-18 points per game. But the struggles that he has had in college show just how high the bar in the NBA is. For as good as Cunningham is, the best players with his skill set were way ahead of him at the same age. LeBron James was already one of the best players in the world at 18. Luka won EuroLeague MVP at 19. Put either in the NCAA and it wouldn’t have mattered who their teammates were. They would have just scored at will.

What separates the two NBA superstars from Cunningham is how easily they rack up points. LeBron was criticized for passing too much early in his career, and yet he still averaged 27 points per game in Year 2 and 31 in Year 3. Cunningham will be one of the most complete young players to enter the league in a long time, but that’s not necessarily enough to carry a team. The best players in the NBA can also go for 30 whenever their team needs them to. That’s the final step that Cunningham has to take to reach that level.