“Situational Analysis” is a series of articles that seeks to examine the circumstances that most often influence an NBA prospect’s success. Each player will be scored on a scale from 1-10 in four different categories: NBA-specific skill(s), fatal flaw(s), collegiate/overseas/pre-NBA environment, and ideal NBA ecosystem.
Cade Cunningham is a 19-year-old point forward from Arlington, Texas, who averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his freshman season for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. He is expected to be selected among the top-3 picks in the upcoming NBA Draft and as high as No. 1 overall. NBADraft.net currently has him projected at No. 1.
Cade Cunningham will arrive in the NBA as a highly efficient offensive weapon simply based upon his factory-installed settings.
It’s a bizarre sensation watching Cunningham play basketball. It’s like watching the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference gain sentience in the form of a 6-8, 220-pound supercomputer. Every play he makes is like seeing an algorithm solve for X in real time.
We have seen players with Cunningham’s combination of size and playmaking skills before (Shaun Livingston, LaMelo Ball, etc.), but the knock on them has often been “if he only had a jumper.” Cunningham already shoots 3s at a 40% clip and his form projects to extend his range well beyond the NBA arc.
We have also seen players with Cunningham’s combination of size and scoring ability (Jayson Tatum, Carmelo Anthony), but the knock on them is usually “can he make his teammates better?” Cunningham has already flashed the ability to make every kind of pass – not just the first/obvious read, but the tricky, second- and third-level reads that create open shots where they didn’t exist before.
Cunningham possesses every skill one would want in a high pick-and-roll initiator. Crowd him and he’s tall/long enough to find the open man. Play off of him and he’ll bury open jumpers. Run a delayed double at him and he’ll find a way to make the unexpected read for an open corner 3.
In due time, Cunningham could develop into the focal point of an elite NBA offense – not necessarily averaging 30 points per game on his own, but combining enough scoring prowess and playmaking ability to turn a decent offense into an exceptional one.
On a scale from 1-10, Cunningham’s polish and all-around skill level rates at a 9.5.
Is Cunningham simply executing math problems, or can he play with enough edge to take his game to the next level?
The truly elite players in the NBA play with a fire and intensity that we have yet to see from Cunningham. It may seem harsh to judge Cunningham’s intensity level this early, but we already see it with Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Both of those players know the math, but they also fully believe that they’re more talented than the math.
Cunningham isn’t the most explosive athlete in this draft, but that was also a criticism levied at Doncic/Young. Explosion isn’t necessarily limited to what you can do in a P3 private workout.
Cunningham has very little to prove on an individual talent basis, but it didn’t translate into a ton of team success with Oklahoma State. Sure, 21-9 is a decent record, but the Cowboys finished in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 and couldn’t find a way to advance out of the first weekend as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Not everyone needs to stomp around like they’re Russell Westbrook, but a team feeds off the energy of its best player. Cunningham’s cool composure is often an asset (especially in the clutch), but in order for him to maximize his considerable potential, he needs to add some significant edge into his game.
On a scale from 1 (not a concern) to 10 (serious hindrance), Cunningham’s intensity level is at a 7.
It was clear very early in his high school career that Cunningham possessed special talent.
He isn’t the kind of player who will set House of Highlights on fire, but his game meshes with every kind of teammate. Unlike a lot of other 5-star recruits, Cunningham can succeed as the No. 1 option playing alongside non-Div. 1 talent, or as the table-setter for a team full of high-major recruits, as he did at Montverde.
After a high school career where Cunningham’s teams rarely lost, he chose Oklahoma State over offers from college basketball blue-bloods – Duke, UNC, Kentucky – and showed he has what it takes to run an efficient offense, no matter who his teammates are.
Even though his college career ended in Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament, Cunningham firmly established himself as the likely No. 1 overall pick. He has the type of game that should only get better as he is surround by more talented players.
On a scale from 1-10, Cunningham’s pre-NBA career rates at an 8.
Ideal NBA Ecosystem
The lottery ping pong balls will have as much to do with Cunningham’s early success as just about anything.
The Houston Rockets have the best chance of landing him. After the James Harden debacle, they are in need of a focal point more than just about any team in the league. Cunningham, a Texas native, will have full fan/institutional support, which will be important early on as the Rockets likely won’t win very many games in the immediate future.
My favorite landing spot for Cunningham, however, is for him to stay in Oklahoma. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a tremendous wingman for Cunningham on paper, and with Sam Presti’s bottomless chest of draft assets and Kemba Walker’s veteran mentorship (at least until next trade deadline), Cunningham will have every chance to succeed in OKC.
Cunningham will be a terrific rookie no matter where he ends up, thanks to his advanced skill level and versatility. But the Thunder likely have the best institutional structure and asset collection to build around him.
On a scale from 1-10, Cunningham’s situational independence rates at a 9.