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.