College basketball tips off this week, and the best show on the hardwood (at least until the NBA comes back) will be Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 recruit in the nation and an offensive maven who will likely hear his name called first in the 2021 NBA Draft.
The Cowboys’ season will begin with a relatively quiet game against the University of Texas-Arlington, but any time Cunningham plays this season, it will be must-watch television. Cunningham is already dominating preseason All-American lists and NBA Draft boards after a tremendous season at Montverde Academy last year, and for good reason. In a league that is placing a premium on toolsy jumbo playmakers, Cunningham could enter the NBA as already one of its most valuable players.
Maybe Cunningham isn’t quite at the level of Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, or LeBron James as a consensus top prospect, but he’s not far off. Rarely do players enter the NBA with such polished skill coupled with physical tools that make him NBA-ready. Cunningham isn’t a household name like those guys were on the days they entered college (or, in LeBron’s case, from the time he was 16), but there’s no reason to doubt he will be soon, and the NBA will have another brilliant young star.
In the NBA Draft, it’s all about gauging the outcomes. There’s a chance Williamson isn’t the perennial MVP candidate we expected him to be, but there’s a chance Cunningham is. It likely is a bit more likely that Williamson is that guy than Cunningham, but their range of outcomes overlaps. Comparing that to a player like Anthony Edwards Jr., for whom just about everything would have to go right for him to be an MVP at all during his career, shows how much Cunningham alone changes the thinking for teams drafting at the top of the 2021 Draft.
Listed at 6’8 and 220 pounds, Cunningham looks like a more lithe Luka Doncic or a stronger Paul George. That frame and his solid athleticism allow him to get just about anywhere on the court and make him a mismatch against just about any defender. While most people his size use that advantage as a scorer, though, Cunningham’s best quality may be his passing.
Already, despite being just 19 (Cunningham is older for a freshman and nearly reclassified to be a freshman last year), the Arlington native has just about every pass in his bag, both in transition and in the halfcourt.
This Cade Cunningham pass… off-hand through traffic, hits man right in stride pic.twitter.com/2yu0pewSXx
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 6, 2020
Wonderful pass out of the pick-and-roll from Cade Cunningham pic.twitter.com/6xn3vhvAYq
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 13, 2020
At the same time, Cunningham has clearly put in work on his jump shot to go along with a quick first step. He’s also a solid leaper and because of his size, can work the post or the perimeter. From the day he gets to the league, he is going to be a nightmare to match up against. At the college level, it’s going to be nigh impossible to keep him from getting wherever he wants to go.
The poor defense has no shot against Cade pic.twitter.com/ND2NVs62Jl
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) March 21, 2020
Aggressive Cade is a scary, scary sight pic.twitter.com/u93uHFi9Hy
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) July 22, 2020
The mechanical improvements Cade has made with his jumper are so, so good. He’s gonna be a tremendous wing shooter pic.twitter.com/Np9TQIJG9G
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 7, 2020
As with many young players, defense is not his biggest strength, but Cunningham fortunately has solid size and length that make him less of a concern on that end than, say, Trae Young. There have also been enough flashes as a team defender to ensure Cunningham at least understands his responsibilities on that end and provide optimism he could be pretty good in time.
Cade Cunningham (@cadecunningham_) had a complete game yesterday vs New Zealand making an impact on both ends of the court.
Beyond the stats, the scariest part is this was his 1st international game and he is turning *just* 18 in September. Would be tier 1 in 2020 *draft*. pic.twitter.com/1bbFnw72b0
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) June 30, 2019
And while this year’s Cowboys team is going to be pretty young, junior team captain Isaac Likelele will be back and give Cunningham a decent scorer to set up, in addition to senior guard Ferron Flavors. We saw Young set the world ablaze with a similarly weak supporting cast in 2017-18. It doesn’t take much when you have this much talent.
Coming off a Draft in which there was very little elite talent and no real prize for tanking, the 2021 class is strong overall, but Cunningham is easily the best prospect in the class heading into the college season. A team like, say, Detroit that looks like it will really struggle this year could really benefit, especially as few teams look dead-set on tanking right now.
It’s not as if Cunningham doesn’t have competition, either. The 2021 class is strong overall, and deep on wings, the most valuable position in the NBA. But you won’t see Brandon Boston or Keon Johnson on preseason All-American lists. Cunningham is a head above his counterparts.
What that means is that while Cunningham likely dominates college basketball, NBA teams will be making moves in conjunction, trying to figure out a way to get their hands on a perfect modern NBA player and one of the most gifted players to come along in the draft in years.