What NBA Scouts Do and Don't Know About Top Draft Prospect Cade Cunningham

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterDecember 9, 2020

Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham brings the ball up the court during the second half of the NCAA college basketball game against Oakland in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Mitch Alcala)
Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham is the most popular answer among scouts projecting the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft. But how much do they really know about him?

NBA front-office members aren't allowed in high school gyms, and the three major scouting events—the McDonald's All-American Game, Nike Hoop Summit, Jordan Brand Classic—were canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Scouts have been able to see Cunningham at various camps like the Nike Skills Academy and Pangos All-American Camp. He also averaged 11.7 points and 5.7 assists in 23.5 minutes at the 2019 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in a lineup with 2020 lottery picks Tyrese Haliburton and Kira Lewis Jr.

Scouts didn't have many opportunities to evaluate Cunningham during his senior year in high school, but there is plenty of tape of Montverde Academy games, with some having aired on national television.

He's already answering questions and confirming beliefs one month into his college career, but scouts still have more to learn about the expected top prospect in the 2021 draft class.

What scouts know

Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

Cunningham is a physical mismatch 

Measuring 6'8" and 220 pounds at 19 years old, Cunningham's size and strength for a ball-handler mirror Luka Doncic's. The comparison doesn't stop there, but at this point, scouts can confirm Cunningham has a unique and advantageous body for the type of perimeter player and passer he's become. 

And they won't require a tape measure. The eye test clearly sees a standout physical profile and Cunningham's ability to create mismatches, using his tools for separating, finishing through contact and operating over defenders.


Basketball IQ is special

Special basketball IQ only enhances Cunningham's signature passing skills. He isn't the type of playmaker who breaks down defenses with lightning-fast dribble moves. Instead, Cunningham—cerebral, never rushed and unselfish— picks apart defenses at his own pace, manipulating with his hesitations or eyes.

It won't take many games for scouts to detect his outstanding basketball IQ, which pops on both assists and defensive reads. He'll generate more attention with dominant offense and triple-doubles, but in his brief time at Oklahoma State, Cunningham has already made some high-level rotations, stunts and anticipations guarding on and off the ball. 


There isn't much to question about competitiveness, agenda, character

Nobody would have blamed Cunningham if he bypassed college and focused on the NBA. He wouldn't have needed to play an NCAA game to be a top pick in the 2021 draft.

In June, the NCAA Committee on Infractions announced Oklahoma State was banned from the 2021 postseason for recruiting violations. Cunningham had the option to get paid and join Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Daishen Nix and Isaiah Todd with the G League Ignite, or he could have earned a nice paycheck overseas like LaMelo Ball.

But Cunningham honored his commitment to Oklahoma State, arguably with more to lose than to gain risking injury without compensation, to play for a team that isn't allowed in the NCAA tournament. 

Aside from his polish and poise on the floor, there is an admirable sense of maturity and professionalism about Cunningham's approach and drive. NBA detectives will do their due diligence gathering information on him during the predraft process, but based on his current reputation, lottery teams can feel good about him acing every background check. 

What scouts don't know

Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

Is he a legitimate point guard?

Heading into the season, scouts' biggest question about Cunningham was whether he can operate as a primary ball-handler and full-time point guard even though he's built like a power forward.

His game doesn't revolve around speed. Will he be able to put enough pressure on defenses with penetration in the half court? 

So far at Oklahoma State, he's bringing the ball up, but he isn't always initiating the set. He's had more possessions as a transition and spot-up player than pick-and-roll ball-handler early on, even though he's generating 1.4 points per possession (99th percentile) in 14 ball-screen situations.

The Cowboys also use sophomore combo guard Isaac Likekele to make plays in the backcourt. It wouldn't hurt for Cunningham's future NBA team to play him with a quicker ball-handler. But Cunningham is too effective creating open looks on the ball with his size, skill and IQ. The offense needs to run through him.

If nothing else, he should see a similar split as Doncic in Dallas, where he was used 77 percent of the time at point guard and the other 23 percent at the 2 this past season.


Can he defend guards?

The "who can he defend?" question is tied to the one wondering whether he's suited for a full-time point guard role. 

Scouts are eager to see his lateral quickness against Big 12 backcourts. However, even if there are instances where he's beaten off the dribble, I suspect there will be more excitement over his defensive potential than fear. 

He moves well enough, and he compensates for a slight disadvantage in foot speed with length, general mobility and more IQ/awareness. At the NBA level, his coach may decide to match him up against positions 2-4. But based on the early results, alarms shouldn't sound if he's forced to defend a faster guard at different points of a game. 


How legitimate is the early-season shooting?

Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

Cunningham has opened the season making six of his 13 three-point attempts through four games. And scouts seem relatively surprised by the early accuracy and how comfortable his shot looks. Has his shooting become a strength?

He missed 13 of 14 three-point attempts at the 2019 World Cup, and he hit only one in six games at the 2019 Peach Jam. At Monverde Academy, he gradually improved from 2018-20, but it seemed reasonable to think his three-point shot would come alive later in his freshman season or NBA career.

His jumper has been a weapon early, particularly off the dribble. He's made 16 of 19 free throws as well. Is this just a hot start, or is it a legitimate development? Because a consistent outside shot could finalize one of the most well-rounded predraft scouting reports of the decade.


What's he like in crunch time? 

Montverde Academy was undefeated behind Cunningham and projected first-round picks Moses Moody (Arkansas), Day'Ron Sharpe (North Carolina) and Scottie Barnes (Florida State), winning every game except two by at least 20 points. 

We haven't seen much of Cunningham operating in crunch time. Scouts will be interested to see how he approaches the final minutes of tight games—whether his unselfish nature and strong facilitating instincts lead to Cunningham deferring, or if he turns into Doncic, who already has a number of game-winners and buzzer-beaters on his resume, from Real Madrid to Dallas.