In a loaded field, Cunningham wins near-universal nod as top prospect with Pistons holding No. 1 pick
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(Editor’s note: The Pistons won the NBA draft lottery for the first time in franchise history last month and general manager Troy Weaver said there were five players who were legitimate candidates to be the top pick. Pistons.com today concludes a five-part series looking at the consensus top-five prospects in the draft with an examination of Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham.)
Jalen Green is considered a player who might one day lead the NBA in scoring. Evan Mobley could be not just a Defensive Player of the Year candidate but also a 7-footer who breaks down defenses off the dribble. Jalen Suggs might emerge as a generational leader who spearheads a team on both ends and leaves a lasting legacy. Jonathan Kuminga has the physical profile to be the ideal wing player in an NBA that covets those types like never before.
And only their presence complicates the decision facing the Pistons that some see as obvious: Just grab Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick when NBA commissioner Adam Silver officially puts them on the clock for the July 29 draft.
Cunningham evokes comparisons to past greats like Pistons star Grant Hill, emerging Dallas MVP candidate Luka Doncic and 2015 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons before his jump shot became irretrievably broken. Supersized playmakers are as incredibly valuable as they are rare, which is why Cunningham has made a clean sweep of No. 1 projections from the most credible NBA mock drafts.
Here’s a look at the Oklahoma State freshman:
FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Cade Cunningham
ID CARD: 6-foot-8 guard/forward, Oklahoma State, 19 years old
DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 1st by The Athletic, 1st by ESPN.com, 1st by Bleacher Report, 1st by The Ringer, 1st by SI.com
SCOUTS LOVE: In a draft where as many as five players might have been the No. 1 pick in another year – 2020, for one prominent example – Cunningham has risen to nearly universal acclaim as the No. 1 pick in a draft where the Pistons are in the cat bird’s seat. Cunningham’s ascension is based on a combination of the sum of his skills plus the lack of any glaring negative. Cunningham has elite size for a playmaker to go with shot-making ability at all three levels. Alongside another playmaker, Cunningham projects as a weapon in catch-and-shoot situations. As the primary initiator, he can make plays off the dribble. How often does that package come along? That’s how the comparisons to Luka Doncic were formed. Cunningham’s superb basketball IQ in tandem with his size, vision and perimeter scoring threat give him all the tools required to be a devastating pick-and-roll operator. Cunningham also is regarded as a very good defensive player, particularly off the ball where his anticipation and basketball IQ show up. On a stacked Montverde Academy team – one that included fellow lottery pick Scottie Barnes plus two other one-and-done first-rounders in Day’Ron Sharpe and Moses Moody – Cunningham was the alpha male. As a 17-year-old, he starred for the gold medal-winning United States U-19 team in World Cup competition. He was the 2020 Naismith winner as American’s top high school player. Cunningham chose Oklahoma State, where his brother served as assistant coach, over every elite program and carried a mediocre roster to a 21-9 record and the NCAA tournament, averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
SCOUTS WONDER: The biggest doubt with Cunningham revolves around his perceived average athleticism. He doesn’t have an explosive first step, he won’t dunk with his head above the rim and he might not take the ball off the defensive glass and outrace everybody to the other end. Are those legitimate concerns? They can be … for players not blessed with Cunningham’s size, vision, sense of pace, shooting range, IQ and ballhandling ability. It’s reasonable to expect Cunningham will have an adjustment to the greater length and quickness of NBA defenders as he goes through his pick-and-roll progressions. Another quibble is with Cunningham’s negative assists-to-turnovers ratio as an Oklahoma State freshman, 3.5 assists to 4.0 turnovers. How that translates to the NBA where Cunningham will have significantly wider passing lanes and driving angles – and more accomplished teammates – is debatable.
NUMBER TO NOTE:4 – That’s how many freshmen have won Big 12 Conference Player of the Year honors since Cunningham got the nod for leading Oklahoma State to an 11-7 record in a conference that was seen as neck-and-neck with the Big Ten for college basketball’s best in 2020-21. The other three: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Marcus Smart.
MONEY QUOTE: “The same doubts about Luka’s athleticism and his translation to the NBA are some of the same doubts that people have about Cade. He’s not going to jump over tall buildings. He’s not super explosive, but his size and strength and basketball acumen, he’s very similar to Luka. A team can look at Luka and say, ‘Well, the same questions we may have had about his translation to the NBA are some of the same we’re having about Cade right now.’ You better make sure that you don’t make the same mistake twice.” – ESPN college basketball and draft analyst Fran Fraschilla
BOTTOM LINE: The challenge with projecting teenagers as NBA products is layered. First is figuring out what they could become with time, focus and diligence. Then it’s digging into the character and personal makeup to determine if there are any roadblocks to complicate the journey. Finally, it’s an educated guess as to how likely any given prospect is to come as close to realizing their full potential as possible. Cunningham reduces the guesswork about as much as any prospect over the past decade. That doesn’t necessarily mean his ceiling is the highest, only that his ceiling is way up there and he’s more likely to scale the wall than almost all of his peers and predecessors. There’s no guarantee the Pistons will exercise their No. 1 pick on Cunningham come July 29, but if it’s not him then you can fully believe general manager Troy Weaver and his inner circle are convinced their guy is destined for greatness.