Whether Andy Bernard of The Office just hit the nail on the head or it's been on everyone's minds for years, I've heard different variations of the same quote quite a bit: how can you tell that you're in the good 'ole days before they're gone?
From a scouting perspective, tweaking the subject matter can bring about a similar musing: how can you tell you're watching greatness before it's actually great?
Cade Cunningham stands out to me as the most complete basketball player I've seen over the last decade. I've been scouting and watching film on prospects since 2013, making scouting reports of my own since 2019 and been an avid college hoops fanatic since the late 1990s. By my measure, Cade Cunningham is the most complete prospect to come through the collegiate scene since Anthony Davis in 2012, and the most polished guard I've seen since Dwyane Wade.
This is a piece I've been saving in the hip pocket, waiting to hit publish until the time is right. A day ahead of the NBA Draft, when so many start to overthink the process and talk themselves into a different option, it's worth reminding ourselves just why this draft class is talked about as being so special: there are several names who would go first overall in any other year, and one main reason why they won't this year. The greatness of Cade Cunningham, a complete player with elite skills and basketball IQ, should vault him head and shoulders above the rest of the field and leave no doubt for the Detroit Pistons that he's the right guy.
Peaceful Warrior: The Makeup of a Champion
I have a soft spot for the cerebral. The calculated, measured athlete who shows restraint with their emotion but great focus with their competitiveness. Unflappable against pressure, they understand the on-court product they put forth is akin to an actor in a play. One sign of trouble, that things aren't going as planned, and your audience can sense a crack in the armor, losing faith in you in the process. Just because a guy isn't the most vocal, fiery, visually competitive on the floor doesn't mean they lack competitive drive.
As a coach, I greatly appreciate the poised demeanor of Cade Cunningham, a peaceful warrior who is still fierce in the throws of battle. The calmness of his facial expressions, combined with the ease with which he makes a difficult game look, could be construed as a lack of elite athleticism or the absence of a next gear. Instead, it should be framed as the right cerebral mindset for a champion.
At 18 years old, Cade Cunningham entered college basketball as the world's top prospect. He played at Montverde Academy, a basketball powerhouse where he teamed with other one-and-done 2021 prospects like Scottie Barnes, Moses Moody and Day'Ron Sharpe to form what might be the greatest collection of talent ever at the high school level. He left there for Oklahoma State, a collegiate program that is clear second-fiddle in their conference, let alone their own state. The Cowboys hadn't made a Sweet Sixteen since 2005, had been ranked in the top-10 only one year since and were coming off two consecutive losing seasons in the Big Twelve. Only once in the last decade had the Cowboys finished conference play with a winning record.
From an outsider's perspective, this could be the next chapter in a tale featuring names like Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Anthony Edwards: top talents who play at subpar programs and miss the NCAA Tournament. Out of the blueblood spotlight and in Stillwater, Oklahoma, it was up to Cade to prove that he wasn't simply avoiding the shared touches of a top program for a one year collegiate stop, but seeking to elevate a program to on-court success.
At the end of the season, Cade propelled the Cowboys to an NCAA Tournament berth. The Cowboys finished the season 11th in the AP Polls, their highest season-ending rank since the 2005 Final Four appearance (and only the second time they've been ranked in the poll). They won their first tournament game in six years, went 11-7 in the Big Twelve and boasted wins over 6th-ranked Texas, a clean sweep of in-state rival Oklahoma and a conference tourney victory over eventual national champions Baylor.
To do that at Oklahoma State, in a year where the Cowboys weren't ranked preseason, is extraordinary and seldom discussed enough when evaluating Cade. Of all these talented players who have traveled a similar path ahead of the NBA, none have won like Cade has. I'd also venture to say that Cade was surrounded by the least amount of talent in comparison to guys like Simmons and Fultz. It's a common theme we'll discuss a lot today, and likely needs more consideration and understanding for just how it shapes his game: Cade's teammates were really, really bad for a Big Twelve program.
Despite all the blown assists, the lack of strong shot-makers next to him and the multitude of defensive schemes they had to play just to slow down an opponent, Cade remained unflappable, rarely expressing frustration on the floor and showing up his teammates. And he never quit making the right basketball play, even if there was a better chance of him scoring over a double than his teammate hitting a corner 3.
Scoring and Mapping Out his Hot Zones
Cade Cunningham is a lead handler built in a laboratory. Standing 6'8" with impressive ball skills and a 7'0" wingspan, his size allows him to see over the top of defenses and create in so many ways. His scoring arsenal is unlocked by his size, and the versatility it brings to score against any type of player he faces.
Divert your focus away from trying to assign a positional label to Cunningham for a moment. Instead, think about the traditional labels of point guard, wing and center in the context of which positions might be guarding Cade.
Cunningham played almost entirely with the ball in his hands at Oklahoma State; nearly 30% of his offense came through pick-and-roll possessions, with another 15.2% coming from isolations. Combine that with transition and it accounts for nearly two-thirds of his usage.
Cade was unflappable in any situation and was fully prepared for whatever defensive challenge he faced. Let's start with the isolations, the one-on-one scoring package that Cade demonstrated with the Cowboys. Coming into college, a major long-term question for Cade was about the consistency of his jump shot. It's a theme we'll revisit many times throughout this piece, but cannot be undersold in its importance to his isolation arsenal. According to Synergy Sports Tech, 19 of the 65 shots Cunningham took in ISOs were early jump shots, meaning he rose up into a drive instead of putting the ball on the floor.
He shot 12-19 (63.2%) on those jumpers with an adjusted field goal percentage of 89.5%. When everyone in the gym is staring at you and knows you're about to score it, that is an otherworldly number, even if it's on less than 20 shot attempts. From the top of the key, where Cade was most prone to isolate and is farthest from the rim, he was 6-11.
It's a vital shot for a guy like Cade to make. You'll often hear concerns about his athleticism and first step (more on that myth later), which necessitates a consistent jumper to go with it. If he nails these shots in isolations, he'll force defenders to crowd him and play him tight on the perimeter. That opens up more space for him to drive one-on-one.
It isn't just the early jump shots, though. Cade is complete with consistent step-backs in his arsenal. He shows the ability to body guys on his drives and use his underrated strength to displace defenders that ride his shoulder. He can do it against guards with ease, but even chucked some bigger bodies aside.
In total, only 10 players in Division I basketball had 75 possessions or more to create out of isolations. Cade was the most efficient (1.12 points per possession).
As a 6'8" handler, the easiest way to prevent his isolations on the perimeter could be to guard him with a smaller guy. Get into the ball, crowd his dribble and try to speed him up. It's a common NBA tactic and part of why a guy like Marcus Smart has as much success as he does against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Cade saw that a decent amount this year, especially from a team like Baylor, who had two elite defensive guards in Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler. But Cade has another element to his game to combat such positional coverage, a trait that is vital to his offensive arsenal in the NBA and his positional fluidity: he's really comfortable in the post.
It wasn't an over-used portion of his game (likely due to the lack of spacing around him) but Cunningham shot 16-31 (51.6%) on post-ups this year. For every three shots he took down there, he'd face a double or find a help defender in no man's land, making the appropriate kick to involve a teammate. Those kicks were only possible because he's a respect threat down low. At 6'8" and guarded frequently by smaller guys, bumping his way to the blocks for a back-to-the-basket possession was a great way to alleviate pressure.
Cade has elite touch as a finisher. His righty hook shot is excellent and he feels for counter-moves when necessary. His footwork is pristine, with step-thrus and counter pivots to stay away from the defense. He appears comfortable on either side of the floor. It should be an important part of his NBA arsenal, especially to punish teams that go small with his primary defender.
Both post-ups and isolations require something vital to be most effective: spacing. Without many threats on the perimeter around him, Cade's room to play in was limited. It isn't unreasonable to feel that his scoring game could pop further and become even more efficient when he's surrounded by pro level talent.
Just how bad was the spacing around Cade? He had no teammates who shot 33% or above from 3 on at least one attempt per game. None. As a team, the Cowboys shot 34.3% from 3. Remove Cade's attempts from the equation and Oklahoma State players made a paltry 30.6% of their treys. That's three percentage points behind the worst NBA team.
In no area is spacing and 3-point shooting more invaluable than when working out of the pick-and-roll. When you work in isolation or out of the post, you're essentially playing one-on-one. If a double comes, it's evident and easy to spot since that defender must abandon their man. Ball screens are different. The screen is what creates an advantage from your primary defender, but it invites a second one in close proximity to blow up the play. More defenders near the ball means a greater probability for traps, doubles or aggressive defense that could force a kick. Even without an aggressive defense, if the screen does its job, it springs the handler free to attack the rim, thus triggering help rotations to leave the perimeter and stop the drive to the hoop. In turn, ball screens feature Cade's teammates as play finishers more frequently than isolations.
The lack of shooting around him influenced his assist numbers greatly, and we'll dive into that during our next section. But subconsciously (or consciously), help defenders who don't respect the perimeter threat of their own man are more likely to collapse on the ball. In a way, that makes what Cunningham did scoring out of ball screens all the more impressive.
Cade was excellent at the basket, converting on 18 of his 26 rim attempts out of the pick-and-roll. He got there more than a quarter of the time, too. He certainly didn't settle for jumpers, and with additional spacing in the NBA that rate could increase. He wasn't great with his runner, but made enough pull-up jumpers (he canned 25 out of ball screens) to be considered a threat from three levels.
From a micro-skill standpoint, Cade already possesses the trait that I've long considered most vital for high-volume pick-and-roll playmakers: pull-up range to 3. His ability to score from range prevents teams from going under screens and daring him to shoot. In unlocks his great passing arsenal, gives him the advantage to worm his way to the basket and is so important in playoff series when defensive gameplans change on a possession-by-possession basis.
That shooting ability is incredibly consistent from Cade. A question mark ahead of his freshman season, he shot over 40% on the year while taking more than five a game. No small sample size worries here.
It's not just that he made them, it's how he made them. Tough shots in isolation and off step-backs. Pull-ups out of the PNR in functional NBA settings. And... in an off-ball role, too.
Cade illustrated the difference between being ball-dominant and just being so good that the ball needs to be in his hands. He can impact the game in ways without needing to create off the bounce. Cunningham was 25-57 (43.9%) on catch-and-shoot looks. He was 4-10 coming off screens. He has so much upside to be combined with another All-Star talent and make it work without being a negative spacing-wise in his own right or standing on the perimeter and ball-begging.
Otherworldly scoring efficiency off the bounce. Comfort in multiple areas, whether it's in the post, atop the key in isolation, out of ball screens or driving to the rim. Comfort in an off-ball role and one of the most well-rounded, consistent 3-point profiles of any draft prospect. Cade can score in nearly any manner. He proved it in a major college conference filled with NBA players, great size and athleticism, and several proven coaches with a track record for defensive success like Bill Self, Shaka Smart, Chris Beard and Scott Drew.
The complete arsenal should pop at the next level with more spacing and better shooters around him. But being that gifted of a scorer also necessitates making the right play and being an advanced passer.
âLuckily for Cade, his passing just might be better than his scoring ability...
Proactive Reads, Judging IQ and Knowing When the Eye Test Trumps the Data
For primary creators in the highest pantheons of hoop, there's a symbiotic relationship between scoring and passing. So many good players fall short of greatness because they never strike the balance required to maximize their team output and use their scoring threat as leverage to set up their teammates. You can teach pick-and-roll reads, watch film on help defenders and practice the same play ad nauseam. It really is a feel for when, how and why that makes the great ones special.
At 18 years old, Cade Cunningham already seems to have this understanding. He's unlocked his ability to control the pace and flow of a game from start to finish as a teenager, making him simultaneously a high-floor prospect and a guy with a Hall of Fame, all-time great ceiling. What Cade already understands is the difference between reactive and proactive passing. A reactive pass is what we commonly think about: if the defense does X, I pass to my teammate here. It's a direct reflection on taking what the defense gives you, and still requires a ton of skill to do correctly.
Proactive passing, though, is in manipulating the defense and taking back the advantage to get what you want, not what the defense gives you. It requires an innate feel, high processing speed and ability to simultaneously recognize schemes and their vulnerabilities. At it's simples, proactive reads are using your eyes to look off a help defender, get him to anticipate one pass while fully intending on throwing another.
At its highest level, proactive playmaking is about the flow of the game as a whole. The recognition that making this pass in the first half, or taking this shot right now, will cause the defense to guard you and your team differently the rest of the way. That by doing it now, it'll allow you to get the exact shots you want in crunch time.
Finding a player with such a feel is very rare. Finding them already demonstrating it as a freshman in college is even more precious. The only other guys who showed this at a young age were LeBron James, and as a playmaker maybe Rajon Rondo, although he lacked the scoring ability to execute and dictate to a defense how he'd be guarded. Cade's poise and ability to manipulate games from start to finish gets me as excited as any natural passing ability he possesses.
It may sound unorthodox, but a great way to judge a passer's IQ is to watch the way they play defense. Their understanding of help rotations can be illustrated by how they put them into practice. While we won't focus too much on Cade as a defender, he has the ability to be really good. Part of that is his frame, length and switchability. But it's mostly his IQ. He knows how to rotate, anticipate and cover the mistakes of his teammates.
As a primary playmaker, it's really difficult to be a good help defender and not have an understanding of how to exploit vulnerabilities and read other help defenses. There are layers to reading a defense and making nuanced passes. The basis for them all is in understanding defensive rotations down to a science.
Still, what Cade possesses is the functionality to make plays for others out of the formations and spots on the floor that he's placed in as a scorer.
Let's start with his one-on-one play, out of isolations and post-ups. It's hard to separate the two because, to be frank, he'll frequently turn his isolation drives into back-to-the-basket opportunities, backing down his man. What Cade does is keep his eyes up constantly and alert for a feel of when defenses will collapse. He has an excellent feel for when his teammates will cut along the baseline, noticing when defenders turn their heads and stare at Cade. He has a great understanding of post doubles and rotations, slinging proactive kickouts to the weak-side corner. He darts them out with both hands.
If his passing arsenal feels polished and complete, it's because it pretty much is.
If we were going to break down passing at its most basic into two micro-skill categories, they would be in passing reads (knowing when and where to throw it) and physical passing ability (one-hand passes, throwing it across your body at full speed, etc.). We've talked a lot about the former when it comes to Cade and his superb basketball IQ.
What causes him to embody that IQ is the physical capability of putting those reads into action. He's really physically gifted as a passer. His size, both in term of ability to see over the defense and throw passes that rarely get deflected, helps unlock this skill. But he's also got almost every trick in his bag in terms of one-hand passes, snap passes, hook passes and skips.
The functional combination of both traits comes out most evidently in the pick-and-roll. Cade combines proactive and reactive reads, makes the passes on time and processes it all at such a high speed. It makes him so hard to stop out of the pick-and-roll.
Cade already does so many things that I love, and are manifested in the video below. His shooting from 3 unlocks his reads, as his defenders typically go over the top of a screen. He's patient to sustain that advantage, using hostage dribbles and lean-ins to keep his primary defender on his hip. Cade involves the roller most frequently and whenever he can, throwing pocket passes, lobs and wrap-arounds to produce the highest efficiency shot for his team possible.
Simply put, he plays with a maturity unfitting for a college freshman.
Such promising scoring ability brings more defensive aggression. Teams weren't going to sit back and just let Cade pick them apart. In Oklahoma State's context, without great shooting or highly capable teammates at creating their own, opponents weren't shy about blitzing Cade and picking him up far from the rim to turn him into a passer.
Once Cade gets rid of the ball, there's little control over the play he still has. Two things stand out to me. One is his willingness to trust his teammates and not try to go 1-on-2. The second is how poised and unrushed he was by those traps.
Cade still has a ways to go here to become fully comfortable. His turnover rate when trapped was very high (although everyone's is particularly high due to the nature of the coverage). I'm willing to bet on him figuring it out (and being trapped less frequently) at the next level because of how cool and calm he looks in the face of pressure.
Relying solely on the film, Cade appears to be a sensational passer. If I were to back this up by telling you that Cade averaged a mere 3.5 assists per game, you probably start to batt an eye. And to combine that with 4.0 turnovers a game and an overall 19.3% turnover rate, you may start to see flaws in Cade's playmaking, or at least doubt how elite he really is.
Without going on a major diatribe on analytics vs. the eye test, there are important ways they differ and require a nuanced approach to figure out which is more right. The data can reveal results, but never include the process for how those results were achieved or the context and confines surrounding the player. In this case, simple assist numbers are incredibly misleading.
Cunningham logged 3.5 assists per game. According to Synergy, he made 202 kickouts out of the pick-and-roll, 17 out of the post and 12 out of isolation. In all three scenarios, his teammates finished the play at a less than average effectiveness. Out of the PNR, for example, his teammates logged 0.802 points per possession from his pass outs. In the NBA, league average this year was 0.957. That extra 0.155 PPP would have created an additional 35 points, or at least one assist per game for Cade.
Additionally, his teammates shot a combined 7-28 (25%) on his kickouts from post-ups or isolations. If you saw the footage above, many of them were on layup attempts and wide open looks, blowing some gift-wrapped opportunities. The ineptitude of his teammates from a scoring perspective is hard to quantify for exactly how many assists they cost Cade, though the footage of their continued misses can be jarring, especially when broken down into two parts.
Those numbers is compounded by a 24.8% turnover rate his teammates held on his kickouts, according to Synergy. There's no way he's surrounded by such talent at the next level. It's part of the reason why assist numbers cannot be used as the sole arbiter of Cade's playmaking prowess. His teammates put him in a difficult position.
If we're going to excuse assist rate metrics due to the poor shooting and conversion of his teammates, how much culpability do they have for Cade's turnover rate? As we discussed earlier, help defenders are more prone to leave their man when he isn't a threat to score, shrinking the amount of space Cade had to operate. From a statistical standpoint, Cade was trapped out of the PNR the 5th most of any Division I college basketball player last year. I have a hard time believing his turnover rate is as high if he's surrounded by even one more scoring threat.
At some point, you have to know when the eye test trumps the data. As firm of a believer in analytics from a team standpoint as I am, the metrics don't do the functionality of Cade's passing ability justice. Sleep comfortably at night knowing his traits will pop in an NBA system.
Skill and Feel over Athleticism
To call Cade Cunningham the perfect prospect would be scouting malpractice and grossly inaccurate. He has a lot of ways he can get better or is limited. First off, he's not known as a freak athlete. The concerns about his athleticism hampering him may be a bit overblown, but he's certainly never going to be the most athletic guy on an NBA floor. Related to that is his first step, which can be a little slower from a standstill than most electric isolation scorers.
From a skill standpoint, his floater off the PNR isn't there yet. He could lower his turnovers and limit some over-dribbling if we were being nit-picky. But no 18-year-old is a finished project or flawless basketball player.
At the fulcrum of the discussion between Cade and other elite prospects (albeit Jalen Green this year or guys like Anthony Edwards and Derrick Rose from prior years) is the valuation of athleticism vs. skill and feel. You can't teach athleticism, and can teach skills, so many give preference to drafting the better athlete than a highly skilled prospect, banking on their own teaching ability.
What you cannot really teach is feel. There's a difference between feel and skill: skill is the ability, feel is knowing when and how to use it. I'm not big on tethering myself to absolute statements, but in general I often value high-feel guys over elite athletes.
To call Cade a poor athlete would be inaccurate, so this isn't a Tyrese Haliburton scenario. What Cade possesses between his ears simply sets him apart from other top prospects. Regardless of whether you're a great athlete or possess an abundance of skill, the greats distinguish themselves when the game is on the line. They have the takeover gene and convert in those situations.
âOn several occasions, Cade came through in the clutch. Against great individual defensive efforts with the game on the line for his team, he put it on ice. It's a trait befitting of a top overall pick, no matter where you land on the skill vs. athleticism argument.
Go back to his Montverde days and you see a guy who fits into a talented group to make winning plays. Look at Oklahoma State to see what he does as the clear top option, starving for competency next to him. He can thrive within any role he's assigned, the perfect blend of positional versatility with championship-bred unselfishness. He's poised and mature, a leader according to those who are around him most. He scores and passes it in every functional facet. He elevates those around him while playing under the big lights.
Simply put, Cade is the most complete prospect I've seen come through the draft in my near decade of draft scouting. He's deserving of the top pick in nearly any draft class and is the horse I'm willing to tie my cart to. I'm blown away by what he did at Oklahoma State.