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Trust the Processing

Cade Cunningham doesn’t have jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism, so why is he expected to be the no. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft? The pace of play has given rise to a new breed of star: players like Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic who can read the game faster than their opponents can react.

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Before the Madness, there were two rounds of Bedlam. Two games in three days. Plenty of time to get familiar. In the opening minutes of Round 2 in early March between no. 16 Oklahoma and no. 17 Oklahoma State, the Sooners played logical pick-and-roll defense against Cade Cunningham, the 6-foot-8 point guard who will likely be selected first in the 2021 NBA draft. A screen from Cunningham’s teammate Kalib Boone forced Oklahoma big man Brady Manek to step up and lunge toward Cade to disrupt his rhythm. Cunningham drove right, but instead of recovering back to Boone, Manek formed a wall along the baseline, trapping Cade in a double-team with no room for forward momentum.

The Sooner coaches were betting that Cunningham wasn’t fast enough to blow past their line of defense, and they were right. But OSU still wound up with an easy layup because Cunningham executed a contorted jump pass falling out of bounds to a cutting Rondel Walker. Oklahoma was quick enough to cut off the daylight of Cade’s path to the basket, but Cade was quicker in reading the space beyond.

Cunningham finds himself in the right place at the right time—it’s true in just about any given possession on the floor, and it’s doubly true for this particular juncture of NBA history. The NBA’s pace of play remains roughly as fast as it’s been since the late 1980s, and both the game’s tempo and widespread spacing have created a level playing field for a stylistically diverse pool of players. The NBA has fostered an environment where both Chris Paul and Zion Williamson can run point in their own way. And now Cade, a former power forward turned lead ball handler, is the face of the 2021 draft.

The game will always bend and bow to generational athletes like Zion, but a fast-paced league doesn’t outright favor the best athletes. Cade is the presumptive no. 1 pick of a league beginning to understand the irony that defines its current generation. The faster teams play, the more randomness occurs on the floor, forcing players to read and react. It doesn’t matter how an athlete explodes from end to end if they can’t recognize the underlying patterns in front of them in a small window of time. The quicker one can decipher the rapidly changing geometry of the court, the longer one can stay on it without hurting the team. We are now in an era that is beginning to understand how a player’s elite perception and awareness can create as many avenues to success as elite athleticism can. The reigning MVP is Nikola Jokic, whose self-deprecating humor about his lack of footspeed masks a legitimate claim as the best offensive player in the world. Two of the NBA’s brightest young stars are Luka Doncic and Trae Young, 22-year-olds who have already honed a near-mystical influence over the court despite facing incessant questions about their physical tools.

Consider it a new phylum of NBA star: players whose on-court advantages aren’t immediately apparent until they’re all you can think about. Players who seem to embody the nebulous word cloud associated with a proactive basketball mind—basketball IQ, feel for the game, intangibles—and lay it bare on the floor, crystalline clear. These players illuminate the league’s future. And in Cunningham, the movement has its newest avatar.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 27 Oklahoma State at Oklahoma Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Montverde Academy’s associate head coach, Rae Miller, was expecting to scout a power forward. At least, that’s how Cade was listed in the reports he’d gotten. Then a high school sophomore at Bowie High in Arlington, Texas, with a stagnant top-50 recruiting profile, Cade was still in the process of transitioning from the post to point guard. “It was not an easy thing, but what you saw from him was that he was responsible, accountable, and he was also very, very encouraging to his teammates, no matter what the situation was,” Miller told me. “He’d make a pass to a kid that fumbled the ball out of bounds and he’d put it on himself that I should have put it in a better spot. You see a guy who carried a lot of the success of the team, and he cared about making sure that he didn’t put more pressure on other people than he ever put on himself.”

Cade had been angling to be a lead guard since his childhood. It was in his blood. Football was his first love, just as it was for his father, Keith. His dad was a standout quarterback for Sam Houston High in Arlington, bound for a promising college career at Texas Tech. An hour before Keith was scheduled to head off to Lubbock for the first time with an assistant coach, he helped his mother move the box spring off her bed frame. Lifting the box spring away, he inadvertently shattered the ceiling light fixture, sending broken glass raining down, damaging nerves and ligaments in his forearm. “I went in and told the doctor I need a couple of stitches because I’ve got 45 minutes before I go to Tech,” Keith told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1985. What followed was five hours of major surgery, and a throwing arm that was never quite the same.

Keith’s quarterback mentality lived on, however, through Cade. When Cade transferred to Montverde for his junior year, his presence was what opened the coaching staff’s eyes. “His communication skills, his ability to really galvanize his group, no matter what the score was, no matter what the situation was, he was always the leader,” Miller said. He remembered asking Cade where those qualities came from.

“Coach, I once was a quarterback,” Cade replied. “My dad was a quarterback, and he always taught me from a young age to make sure that I have my head up and I’m talking and building everyone’s confidence around me.”

In another timeline, this might have been an NFL story, if it weren’t for the joyless drudgery of practice. As cool as Cade was within himself, there wasn’t much he could do about the overwhelming Texas heat. Practices under the sun were grueling; thoughts of playing basketball in an air-conditioned gym became a refreshing respite. By the end of junior high, there was hardly a choice to be made. “His eighth grade year, that’s when it became real, that’s when he started dunking and started feeling himself, and I kind of figured he was going to make that change from football to basketball,” Cade’s cousin Ashton Bennings said.

The heirlooms that Keith had bestowed to Cade made a good football player, but they made a great basketball player. That cross-sport fluency also explains the talents of Jalen Suggs, a fellow projected top-five selection, who was the best high school quarterback in Minnesota before electing to play basketball for Gonzaga. While the rules and parameters are different, the skill a high-level quarterback develops from sensing the positioning of all his teammates on the field can be translated onto the hardwood, granting access to a special range of vision on the basketball court.

“That was definitely always a part of his game,” said Bennings, a basketball skills trainer who has worked with Cade since his preteen years. “That’s what separated him as a kid. In fifth grade, he wasn’t making, like, Jason Williams passes, behind-the-back passes, not even no-look passes. It was just penetrate, kick, overhead pass. It was just basic basketball passes. And I give all the credit to his dad. That vision and that IQ came from his dad.”

It took a while for Cade’s body to catch up with his mind. Bennings remembers being unimpressed when Cade first started training with him in the fifth grade. “Everything was so slow for him,” he said. “He had slow feet.” Most scouts in North Texas’s Metroplex area assumed he’d follow in the footsteps of his brother Cannen, a 6-foot-10 post player for Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs. But the last-ditch growth spurt that would have taken Cade to Cannen’s height never came. And Cannen, who returned from a year of basketball overseas to coach his little brother in the EYBL 16-under circuit, started to wonder whether Cade could be something more. “He didn’t want Cade to just be a power forward and a center, standing at the box just hoping to get the post entry,” Bennings said. “The big guys want to play like a 6-foot-2 guard and Cannen was one of those guys. Cannen always believed that he should have been playing on the perimeter, so in Cannen’s head, he just plugged that into Cade.”

Cannen had a mandate on every half-court possession: Before Cade was able to make any decision on the court, he had to wait for a screen and engage in the pick-and-roll, the most foundational tool of the lead guard. Disobey, or make a bad read, and he was benched. “He got sick of ball screens, he got sick of coming back to the ball,” Bennings said. “He wanted to get a fast-break dunk like every other kid wants to. But Cannen wasn’t allowing that. And every mistake that Cade made—and Cade was clearly the best player on the team—Cannen would take him out of the game every time. There would be times where Cade would point to me in the stands, like, man, he trippin’.”

But all those playmaking reps gave Cade a four-dimensional understanding of the pick-and-roll. Through his early days as a big, he had a strong grasp on setting screens and how certain angles would dislodge the defender in certain ways; now, as the handler, he could apply that internal data to manipulate both his own screener and the opponent as though he were running simulations of possible avenues in real time. Few players his age have as advanced an understanding of pick-and-roll craft because few players his age have had as much experience inhabiting both roles. In the two-man game, Cade works all the strings.

In less than three years’ time, Cade had transformed himself from a power forward to the no. 1 point guard in the country. “The fact that he’s played all the positions on the floor has been really, really big for him,” said Miller, who helped lead Montverde to arguably the greatest high school basketball season in history. Miller spoke in awe of that team and its competitive spirit; after every practice, Cunningham would play a game of one-on-one against 6-foot-11, 265-pound big man Day’Ron Sharpe, himself a potential first-round pick in this year’s draft. The best point guard in the nation against the second-best center in the country; even after he assumed the sport’s most glamorous position, Cade never forgot his roots. “He’s really well-versed in understanding what each guy needs on the floor because he’s been there. … We were 25-0 with him scoring 14 points a game and playing less minutes than most superstars. Because he was always caring about the other guys on his team. It separates him.”

Miller has coached some of the best basketball prospects of the century—from Kyrie Irving to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons to RJ Barrett. With 30 years worth of experience scouting and building up kids for the next level of their development, he knows exactly what to look for. So when Cunningham was brought into Montverde Academy as a junior, he was immediately slotted in as the team’s starting lead guard, sight unseen. In fact, head coach Kevin Boyle had never watched him play. He didn’t need to. Discovering Montverde’s next star is a matter of finding players who tick the most boxes on Miller’s mental checklist, a series of questions that determine if a player’s instincts are up to standard. During his two seasons at the academy, Cade had the perfect answers for two of them.

“How do you see the game as a player?” Miller asked. “And do you see the other people who are in the game, both on your team and on the opposing team?”

In his seminal 1965 New Yorker profile of then-Princeton star Bill Bradley, the Pulitzer-winning writer John McPhee, through transliterating the grammar of Bradley’s gifts into written word, tapped into basketball’s timeless holy grail. “He is a truly complete basketball player. He can play in any terrain; in the heavy infighting near the basket, he is master of all the gestures of the big men, and toward the edge of play he shows that he has all the fast-moving skills of the little men, too,” McPhee wrote. “He plays any position—up front, in the post, in the backcourt. And his playmaking is a basic characteristic of his style.”

There is a sense of beguilement that runs through the story. McPhee describes a shot in Bradley’s repertoire that, by all accounts, should be chalked up to accident, if it wasn’t a regular occurrence: a no-look, over-the-shoulder toss into the hoop with his back to the basket. He describes passes that aim to will prediction into existence. “He can’t seem to resist throwing a certain number of passes that are based on nothing but theory and hope.”

Bradley generously tries to explain to McPhee the inexplicable. “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said. “You develop a sense of where you are.”

What Bradley described more than a half-century ago is something most basketball fans today would characterize as a feel for the game, itself a colloquialism that tries to make tangible something that is not. In a piece titled “The Art and Science of ‘Feel’ in Basketball,” published earlier this year, neuroscience graduate and basketball analyst Evan Zaucha aimed to finally pin down a substantive definition for a concept that, for decades, was treated more like a mystical property. “If I had to describe feel in more concrete terms,” he wrote, “I’d describe it as the sum of a player’s pattern recognition, visual processing (especially spatial recognition), and processing speed.”

Put simply, those three cognitive abilities come together to form an executive action that aims to solve a problem in the game. Pattern recognition involves identifying a familiar situation or formation on the court that triggers recollection of a similar experience; that is then used as a template for one’s visual processing, which is the act of repeatedly updating information—delivered from the retina of the eyes to the visual cortex in the back of the brain—about the movement happening in one’s perceived surroundings, and making a deduction based on the information gathered; processing speed, then, is how quickly one can act upon the conclusion formed.

“We kind of throw out the term ‘processing’ all the time. It has multiple meanings,” said Kurt Warner, a former NFL MVP quarterback (and all-state high school point guard in Iowa). Warner, considered the greatest undrafted player in NFL history, famously played three years of arena football, a different context of football with different expectations: Games were played on a 50-yard field, half that of the NFL’s, which necessitated quicker plays and decisions in smaller windows of space. Warner had physical tools that would have graded below the NFL’s average, but he was an elite processor, and had a sense of how to throw from every angle and do so accurately.

St. Louis Rams v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

“So, one of the things that we talk about in football is the ability to process, meaning how quickly can I go from one option to another option to another option? That’s one form of processing,” he told me. “Another form of processing is—we’ll use a basketball example—the ability in the moment to understand what kind of pass I have to make. Does it have to be a bounce pass? Does it have to be a firm pass? Does it have to have a little more touch on it to get it up and over? That becomes another part of processing, to be able to see it in that moment, in that second, at the speed of the game. To be able to recognize movement, placement, where guys are, what their body language looks like.”

At the highest level of sports, that kind of recognition of others can appear to spectators as clairvoyance, an expression of anticipation that borders on impossible. In my conversation with Warner, I used Jokic as an example—how is it that he can launch full-court water-polo passes to a darting teammate without even a glimpse down court?

“I’ll kind of liken it to something on the football field. What you’re trying to do as a quarterback on the football field is I’m trying to expand my vision at times,” he said. “They always say quarterbacks have to see 11 guys. Now, no quarterback can see 11 guys. You just can’t see across the field and know what exactly every one of them is doing. But I’m always trying to open my field of vision to be able to feel 11 guys and understand where they’re at and take in the big picture. ... I can see bodies moving. If I’m looking down the middle of the field, I can feel my receiver coming in from the left-hand side out of my peripheral.

“That’s what I believe Jokic is doing. I’m going up for the rebound, I know where my guy is, I’m boxing out, I’m feeling my guy take off down the other side of the court. ... Slowing the game down allows me to start seeing that movement. So when I’m playing basketball, that’s what I’m always trying to do. In every moment, I’m trying to take in as much information as I can. … What else can I see while I’m engaged in this one-on-one moment? How much else can I see and process while that’s happening? That becomes key in being a great athlete and being able to thrive in those kinds of moments. Because there’s constant movement, there’s constantly new things happening.”

James J. Gibson, a pioneer in the field of ecological psychology, argued that through motion, we are constantly learning our own capacity to act within our surroundings. It’s the same system for an average human and one playing at the highest level of basketball; the only difference is the extreme specificity of the NBA’s parameters, and the amount of time one has to act. Translate a point guard’s processing in the pick-and-roll into something legible and it would resemble a word problem out of a standardized math test: I have initiated a pick-and-roll. My defender and my big’s defender opt to blitz. My big dives into the lane, and the defender guarding my weakside corner shooter is slinking toward the paint to help. Do I have enough of a gap in both time and space to swing it to the shooter? Do I have the strength and leverage to make the pass? Is it easier to fit a pass to my big in the paint? Or should I just reset? It probably took a few seconds to get through those sentences; a player would have a split-second to process it in real time.

“When you understand how the brain and the probabilities around decision-making work, at least at a theoretical level, you can really start to think about how you would manipulate that environment, how you would manipulate the decisions you make, and introduce new variables that would change those decisions in a way that spurs on development,” Zaucha told me. “Coaches are really starting to come in full force with that. I can’t tell you the number of coaches that have talked to me about perception-and-action coupling and building an ecology for development. Those are not things that I think I would have heard five or 10 years ago.”

Zaucha’s piece on “feel” has opened lines of communication with coaches of all levels, from AAU to the NBA. “I think a lot of people have the same question in mind,” he said. “Whether you’re a player, a coach, or you’re in the front office, everyone wants to know how we can encourage players to make better decisions and to do so in a more efficient way.” Zaucha’s typical suggestions include having guards both set screens and move off them; having bigs run guard drills, giving them ball-handling opportunities; encouraging participation in other sports, where players can develop an understanding of how their bodies work in different contexts and constraints. It’s no surprise, then, that Cunningham’s processing speed—even in a draft class loaded with high-feel players like Suggs, Evan Mobley, and former Montverde teammate Scottie Barnes—is special.

“Really skilled players are just seeing different things, picking up different information about the spacing of players, the movement of players, and that allows them to make these quick decisions in the moment,” said Rob Gray, an Arizona State University sports scientist and Gibson disciple. “I think really good players are more attuned with what their teammates can do. Sometimes there’s this term we use called ‘shared affordances,’ where I see an opening the same time you do. And so that’s where the play clicks. ... That’s what an affordance is: an opportunity for action, whether it’s cutting to the basket or reversing a play. We both see it at the same time, so we’re on the same page. I think there’s a lot of that going on.”

Basketball is a game of decisions, and as “feel” becomes a more widely explored concept in the NBA, the speed with which a player can accurately process a half-court situation may one day be valued as highly as the speed in which a player completes a shuttle drill. “Teams have done a better job, or at least are starting to do a better job taking swings on guys who don’t have that classic athleticism,” Zaucha said. “I think the way that feel and decision-making influences your impact on the court is a big factor in that, and it’s finally getting the respect it deserves.”

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Lizzy Barrett/Getty Images

In the mid-2010s, an Eastern Conference general manager had a question for all his front-office colleagues, one that could serve as an organizing principle for future transactions in the draft, free agency, or trade market. We rate players on IQ. But what I want to know is: What is your definition of IQ? “It was a very good question,” a former executive who attended the meeting told me. “And I didn’t have a good answer to it. Is it overall smarts? Is it his instincts? Is it strictly knowledge of the game or making decisions?” The GM went around the room, and the executive was asked last. Fittingly, he gave an all-encompassing response about an all-encompassing term: “I really believe IQ is a combination of all of those things.”

The team was a playoff contender, annually situated right in the range of the draft where the question of talent versus feel becomes the biggest internal debate. “A very good example would be a guy like Draymond Green. People questioned his overall talent,” the executive said. “We had this type of dialogue. He’s such a smart player, but did he jump high enough? Is he quick enough? His body was not an Adonis body. That type of thing. In hindsight, that was a mistake. Because his IQ and feel for the game was so far superior to many, many players and that allowed player development to deal with the other issues. And he’s become All-Star caliber, a Defensive Player of the Year.”

Success stories like Green and Jokic, selected in the second round just two seasons later, have tilted the calculus of NBA front offices recently, but the burden of proof remains high, especially at the very top of the draft. “There is this school of thought that if the guy isn’t the smartest player but he’s a hell of a talent, that you can program him within your system,” the executive said. “I do believe when push comes to shove, most executives that have to make the final decision, they’ll talk about it, but talent will trump feel.”

Every decision made in the draft is an intellectual exercise based on priors, in one way or another. Near the end of one of our conversations, the executive had one for me to consider: Do you think Cade Cunningham would have been drafted no. 1 10 years ago?

I paused. There is a timeless quality to Cunningham’s game, but would his perceived lack of athleticism have been accepted as readily as it is today?

“Explosiveness, is that as important as cleverness? Well, I never thought Magic Johnson was very explosive. He was much more deliberate, and the same with [Larry] Bird,” he said. “But they really knew how to play. I mean, really knew how to play. They could influence the game with their mind and their skill set.”

Every year, around the same time, NBA observers enter a liminal space where the best amateur basketball players in the world flatten into ideas. And every year, around the same time, we relearn just how intensely ideas are pulled toward categorization, like moths to flame. The most consequential prospects in any draft are filed into archetypes, sometimes a reflection of league trends and recency bias, other times a reflection of product scarcity and the tension and competition such scarcity engenders—Player X is a unique star; how can we will another into existence? That’s how today’s game is largely played on the ashes of “the Next Kevin Garnett.” It’s how every Sekou Doumbouya scouting report during the Raptors’ championship season came with an obligatory Pascal Siakam mention. It’s how “shoots like Steph, big like Klay” becomes a meme. The executive said that teams don’t frame the trajectory of the game quite so neatly, “But, you know, we’re a copycat league.”

So while Cunningham may share traits with Magic and Bird, the view of him as a can’t-miss prospect is much easier to process because of current-day players like Jokic—and, in particular, Luka Doncic. In broad strokes, Cunningham and Doncic may well be geminis of a very specific playmaking archetype. It’s rare to see perimeter players leverage their size, strength, and stride to create space in the way that both players seem innately aware and capable of. “As prospects, I do think Cade has a pretty similar baseline in terms of the vision and the way he sees the court, the way he processes how everyone is moving,” Zaucha said.

Cade himself appears to have a tacit understanding that Luka has paved the clearest path to success. In late November of last year, Cunningham and former Oklahoma State assistant coach Erik Pastrana watched an NBA bubble game between the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets as a way to talk strategy for an upcoming game. “Luka’s creativity, size—it’s crazy,” Pastrana said. “If you look at the pistol stuff, just all the different ways he uses his intelligence and size to kind of take advantage.” Cunningham’s eyes are fixed on Doncic’s footwork and pacing. He drawls, seemingly in a trance. “He wants you on his hip right there, he don’t really want you behind him,” Cade said. “Yeah, you can’t plan nothing out with him.”

What separates the two is showmanship. There is a sense of wonderment to Doncic’s game so distinct that it can feel like that the plays he creates for himself or others could have only come from his balls-to-the-wall imagination. Sometimes it fails miserably, but we only remember the magic. It’s a realm of play that Warner, even as a quarterback, relates to. “Sometimes you get so much joy out of it because you know everybody else doesn’t know what you know,” Warner said. “It lends itself to having fun, playing at another level. … When you’re someone who has that ability, it’s fun to play in that world, to be able to do things that you know other people can’t do.”

One watches Cunningham expecting a beeline to the right decision; one watches Doncic expecting the seas to magically part, showing another way. But the stylistic difference may not have much effect on substance. “I wonder if there really is a gap in their creativity—the way they manipulate defenders, especially—or if it’s some sort of aesthetic bias at play,” Zaucha said. “Because Luka loves to make those creative decisions, and then sell it with a behind-the-back pass or some wild delivery that the defense doesn’t expect. Whereas I think Cade—from a decision-making perspective, I think Cade solves problems in creative ways, he just doesn’t always make them look creative.”

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The most daunting question to be answered in Cunningham’s early career will be how he adjusts to the size, strength, and speed of the NBA. But if it all breaks right, the league will have to adjust to him. “It’s kind of paradoxical,” Gray said. “In baseball, when you get these soft-throwing guys who can get these people out, you’re like, how is that possible? The opponent gets calibrated, as well, to certain speeds. You can put them out of their comfort zone when you slow things down. It can throw out the convention. … In basketball, it’s kind of like a predator-prey relationship, so you’re trying to create advantages and throw off the other person’s perception.”

The power of the no. 1 pick prompts one team to imagine the player who might inherit the league one day. And there is little that captures the imagination as vividly as pure physical dominance. The 2021 NBA draft could begin the process of reshaping that perception. Cade stands as an outlier precisely because he doesn’t appear to be one. In time, we might find out what it is we weren’t able to see.

Danny Chau used to work here. These days, he’s just a friend.

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