By: Thomas O’Farrell
By the time Cade Cunningham stepped on Oklahoma State’s campus, he had put together one of the most successful 12 month stretches by any prospect in recent memory. A Nike EYBL MVP after averaging 25.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists. A gold medal in the FIBA U19 World Cup, after starting every game and finishing third in points and second in assists on a team full of former and future lottery picks. Multiple player of the year awards for his role in leading Montverde Academy to a 25-0 record, shooting 59.2% from the floor and 47.7% from 3. Cunningham’s complete skill set and utter dominance drew Luka Dončić comparisons, and Cunningham emerged in a tier of his own as the consensus number one pick.
Through 19 games at Oklahoma State, Cunningham has underwhelmed. His passing, considered by many to be his best trait, has failed to materialize in box scores, as he has only logged 3.6 assists against 4.2 turnovers. Also hailed for his supreme efficiency, Cunningham’s true shooting percentage has been dragged down by a 55% mark at the rim and 31% on 4 midrange attempts a game. His BPM of 7.3 pales in comparison to fellow top prospects like Evan Mobley (13.5) and Jalen Suggs (9.7). Despite these struggles, Cunningham remains the consensus number 1 pick, with many draft analysts still considering him far above the field. Contrived narratives have emerged to explain Cunningham’s struggles in college and justify his place as the #1 pick. It is important to realize which of these explanations carry weight, and which ones should be disregarded.
Explanation #1: Cade Cunningham’s numbers are underwhelming because his team is very bad.
This seems to be far and away the most popular explanation to explain Cunningham’s struggles, and probably the most flawed. Oklahoma State has posted a better net rating with Cunningham off the floor than with Cunningham on the floor. They are +13.08 with Cunningham off the floor, and +5.74 with Cunningham on the floor. Oklahoma State has hovered on the cusp of the top 25 and will likely be a tournament team. Isaac Liekele, their top player from last season’s team, is having another solid year while sophomore Kalib Boone, who is currently leading the team in BPM and WS/48, has taken a big step forward. This Oklahoma State roster is better than 90% of teams in D1 basketball, and even without Cunningham would still probably be better than 80% of teams in D1 basketball. Much worse teams like Markelle Fultz’s Washington team and Ben Simmons’ LSU team did not prevent those #1 picks from putting up huge numbers. If anything, it feels like a more logical conclusion would be that Cunningham’s numbers in high school were inflated by playing on stacked rosters against inferior competition.
Explanation #2: Cunningham’s assist numbers drastically underrate his passing because his teammates miss shots.
Yes, Oklahoma State is not a great shooting team. Cunningham’s teammates are shooting 30.9% from three, and even when including Cunningham’s shooting, they still only rank 186th in 3-point percentage. But some arithmetic and assumptions show that the effect this has on Cunningham’s assist number is highly exaggerated. Cunningham’s teammates have a field goal percentage of 45.8%. The college basketball leader in team FG% is Gonzaga at 55.4%. If we assumed that Cunningham’s teammates shot 55.4% off his passes instead of an assumed 45.8%, this would increase his assists by 21%, to 4.4 assists per game. Even with this huge assumption, Cunningham’s assists would still only barely outpace his 4.2 turnovers per game. While assist numbers are never a 100% accurate measure of a player’s passing abilities, and there are many considerations that can be made, Cunningham’s teammates are not the reason for his low assist numbers. While Cunningham certainly has good court vision for his size, he does not seem to be the transcendent passer some had billed him as.
Explanation #3: While Cunningham’s overall numbers might be underwhelming, it doesn’t really matter because he can still take over when he wants to.
This viewpoint was reflected in ESPN’s latest profile of Cunningham, which glowingly discussed his penchant for big moments. Cunningham has posted impressive scoring averages down the stretch and has taken on a much larger usage role in the second half of games. He has also been very effective in isolation, averaging 1.22 PPP in 46 possessions. These numbers certainly help assuage concerns over Cunningham’s ability to create his own shot without elite athleticism and are a valuable point in his favor. However, in such small sample sizes, it would be a bridge too far to assert that Cunningham has some intangible “it-factor” that allows him to score at will when necessary. As analytics have shown time and time again, the “clutch gene” is notoriously overrated (if existent at all), and it would be silly to center Cunningham’s evaluation around only a handful of shots in the last minutes of games.
Explanation #4: Even though Cunningham has struggled in college, he was just so much better in high school that he remains a cut above everyone else.
The primary reason to heavily weight Cunningham’s high school numbers is a healthy sample size. Cunningham’s FIBA, AAU, and senior year constitute over 40 games compared to just 19 games at Oklahoma State. However, the level of competition in most of these games is far inferior to what Cunningham has faced in the Big 12 and will face in the NBA. Going against bigger, better athletes has exposed some of Cunningham’s flaws, as he has struggled to finish around the rim and his loose handle has resulted in too many turnovers. The track record of great high school prospects who underwhelmed in college, exemplified by Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, has generally been very poor in the NBA. And while other top prospects like Evan Mobley and Jalen Green were not as decorated high school athletes, they were still top recruits who have excelled so far against good competition. While many of Cunningham’s flaws might have not been apparent in his tremendous high school career, his struggles against better athletes should be a primary concern.
All things considered, Cade Cunningham is still an exceptional prospect. At 43.7% from 3 on 4.6 attempts per game and 83.8% from the line, he is on pace to have one of the greatest shooting seasons by a one-and-done prospect ever. He has good size and length, plays solid defense, and at the very least has potential as a playmaker and ball handler. He has played a tough schedule and while he may not be dominating, he has more than held his own. Cunningham certainly deserves to be in contention for the number one pick.
But it is important to contextualize Cunningham with the other prospects in the class and past number one picks. Looking at number one picks in the one-and-done era (2006 onwards), of the 12 one-and-done players, Cunningham’s WS/48 rank second to last. The only player his advanced stats topped was Anthony Edwards, who was younger, more athletic, and perhaps most relevant to this discussion, in a far weaker draft class.
This year looks like an exceptionally deep draft class with several players who warrant consideration for the number one pick. Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley are impressive athletes who have dominated on both ends of the floor, posting much better advanced stats than Cunningham. In the G-League, competing against better competition than any college team, Jalen Green has excelled scoring the ball, averaging 17.6 a game while shooting 54.4% from 2 and 37.0% from 3. And while Jonathan Kuminga has struggled to see his shot fall, his physical abilities and youth make him an intriguing prospect. Cunningham still has time left in the season to reassert himself as the consensus top pick, but his struggles at Oklahoma State cannot be swept under the rug. He certainly has the capability to be an exceptional NBA player, but this draft is too strong and Cunningham has been too weak to be the runaway number one pick.