Scouting Report & Film Review: Cade Cunningham

Don't overthink it, Cade Cunningham is the best and most well rounded player in this draft.

The term "generational prospect" is tossed around too liberally. It sets unfair standards, unreachable expectations, and is misleading. The 2021 NBA Draft likely doesn't have a "generational prospect," but when it comes to Cade Cunningham, there have been few prospects in recent years who are as well-rounded as him.

The hype that has surrounded Cunningham since high school is legitimate. He is a 6'8 220-pound do-it-all player. Cunningham has the size of a wing, a point guard's skills, and the basketball IQ of a savvy vet. While Cunningham may not reach the levels of "generational prospect" that some are placing on him, it is difficult to envision a world in which he isn't an All-Star contributing to winning basketball for a long time.

Coming out of high school, there were really only two major concerns with his game: athleticism and shooting. Cunningham's lack of elite athleticism may limit him some as an on-ball defender and at-rim finisher. However, his combination of size, strength, and intelligence make up for any shortcomings.

When it comes to shooting concerns, Cunningham pretty much laid those to rest. This season, Cunningham shot 40 percent from three on 155 attempts (5.7 per game). These attempts came off the dribble, off screens, and spotting up. Cunningham also shot 43.8 percent from the floor and 84.6 percent from the line.

Cunningham isn't a player who exclusively relies and capitalizes on open opportunities, either. He is exceptionally comfortable creating his shot, finishing through traffic, and shooting over aggressive shot contests.

In nearly every game Cunningham played, opposing defenses were transfixed on him. Double teams were common, and all five defenders tended to collapse on his every drive. This defensive strategy that Cunningham had to overcome every night makes his at-rim finishing even more impressive. Cunningham scored 1.333 points per possession (PPP), 82nd percentile, around the basket, per Synergy, this season.

His creative ball-handling and patience make him a constant threat when attacking. Unlike most right-hand dominant players, Cunningham saw tremendous success driving to his left. Overall, Cunningham scored 1.214 PPP when driving to his left, including 1.5 PPP on pull-up jumpers and 1.667 PPP when he attacked the rim.

Cunningham didn't need anything flashy here to score. Instead, he got downhill, lowered his shoulder, and shrugged off a 245-pound defender with ease. Few players have the natural strength to move defenders with a significant weight advantage this effortlessly.

Cunningham's mastery of the pick-and-roll at his age is impressive. When he attacks the basket after dribbling off the screen, Cunningham scores 1.345 PPP (92nd percentile). Despite not being an elite athlete, Cunningham uses his strength, change-of-pace dribbling, and creativity to get to the rim. As we see below, Cunningham is not deterred at all by larger defenders. Instead, Cunningham uses his creativity to manipulate them in space. Once Cunningham comes off the screen, he has the dropping big man on an island. Cunningham hesitates and feigns a step-back jumper which freezes the defender. Once the defender bites on the fake, Cunningham attacks baseline and finishes with a reverse while being completely unaffected by the weakside defender.

Cunningham is always a threat when attacking the rim, but he has also proven to be a threat shooting off the dribble as he scored 0.865 PPP (65th percentile) when doing so. Cunningham gets to his spots in the mid-range in a similar fashion as Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul. I know those are two very different players but hear me out. Neither Leonard nor Paul is known as an extravagant ball-handler. Instead, as players who rely on their strength and craftiness to create space. Here, Cunningham does the same.

Few players have the composure and skill that Cunningham displays to get this shot off. The defender does an almost perfect job of containing Cunningham's series of drives, crossovers, and fake spin moves. However, Cunningham shows his incredible feel for the game with a perfectly timed shot fake which loses the defender and gives Cunningham just enough space for the mid-range jumper.

Cunningham is fully capable of breaking out his bag of tricks and making defenders look silly with complex dribble moves and counters. The flashy ball-handling tends to make the highlights, but the most valuable tool in Cunningham's arsenal is his understanding of change-of-pace dribbling. He manipulates the defender's momentum and regularly creates plenty of space. With an aggressive drive, slight (maybe a little more than slight) nudge on the rear, and exquisite deceleration, Cunningham creates a breadth of space for a pull-up jumper.

I know mid-range jumpers are no longer fetch (did that ever become a thing), even though they can be extremely valuable. Don't worry, though. Cunningham's space creation extends to threes as well. This season, Cunningham scored 1.165 PPP (79th percentile) on threes.

Yet again, Cunningham shows off his impressive ball-handling and footwork with a step-back three. Cunningham starts to his right and quickly crosses over to his left. This move forces the defender to flip his hips and attempt to change his momentum. Cunningham realizes that the defender's hips and momentum have carried him too far towards the lane, so instead of forcing a drive, Cunningham plants hard on his right foot, steps back for three, and nails the open shot with perfect mechanics.

Cunningham's shot creation ability will immediately translate to the NBA. We frequently see successful regular season teams fizzle out in the playoffs because they don't have guys who can create their shot late in games. See every Mike Budenholzer team.

Cunningham's shot creation ability is tremendous, but he has also proven he can score without the ball as he scored 1.298 PPP when shooting off the catch. This skill will allow for more creative lineups and the option for Cunningham to play a myriad of roles.

Cunningham's off-ball shooting isn't him just standing in the corner waiting for a kick-out pass. He runs off screens and is excellent at relocating on the perimeter.

Once Cunningham recognizes that the baseline cutter is forced to dribble back out of the paint, Cunningham rotates from the right to the left wing. This move gives the ball-handler an outlet where there previously was none. Cunningham doesn't hesitate, hops into his shot in rhythm, and knocks down the three despite the quality contest.

Cunningham has the tools to be a highly efficient scorer in the NBA. He is always a threat to score, but the real magic when he has the ball comes with his playmaking. Few players see and manipulate the floor as effortlessly as Cunningham does.

But Cunningham averaged only 3.5 assists and four turnovers per game. How could he possibly be an elite playmaker with those numbers? The reason is simple: his teammates. This isn't meant as slander to the Oklahoma State players because they are young and grew a lot over the season. Instead, it's providing context because the rest of the Oklahoma State roster shot 47.1 percent from the floor and 31 percent from three this season. It was a team that was devoid of shooters.

As far as the turnovers go, I would be shocked if they were that high for Cunningham in the NBA. Cunningham had to initiate everything and had entire defenses collapse on his every attack. Turnovers are going to happen in that environment.

When NBA-level shooters surround Cunningham, he will thrive. His size allows him to see over the defense, and he has proven the ability to make the right play when defenses collapse. He is a willing passer who nearly always makes the right play.

We already established Cunningham's propensity to attack the rim, but he isn't solely looking to score when he does so. Below, Cunningham dribbles off the screen, keeps his defender on his back, and snake dribbles down to the block. Instead of forcing a shot through heavy defense, Cunningham quickly reads the floor. He sees the entire defense below the free-throw line, the weakside defender rotating down on the roll man, and his teammate who rotated to the wing from the corner. Cunningham then delivers a perfect pass over the defense right to the shooter's pocket.

Here, Cunningham does an excellent job of using his eyes to manipulate the defense on his drive. Cunningham quickly crosses to his left and immediately gets the defender on his hip. At this point, the on-ball defender is essentially out of the play, and a weakside defender must rotate to cut off the drive. Cunningham sees the weakside defender slide over from the block, preparing to take a charge, while at the same time, Cunningham's teammate begins cutting from the left corner. Instead of barreling to the rim, Cunningham decelerates to avoid the charge, stares down the corner to freeze the second weakside defender, and delivers a perfect pass for a layup.

Cunningham's teammate made an excellent cut, but Cunningham's scoring gravity and eye manipulation created this opportunity. Teammates will love playing with Cunningham, especially if they're active off-ball because he will regularly create easy opportunities for them.

Even when defenses hard hedge the pick-and-roll, Cunningham is unfazed by the pressure. Here, the defense forces Cunningham to pick up his dribble miles from the rim. Instead of panicking, Cunningham fakes a pass to the opposite corner and moves the weakside defender with his eyes. This subtle fake moves the defender just enough for Cunningham to deliver a strike to his teammate in the post for a layup.

Cunningham's ability to manipulate the defense is also applicable when he is on the move. Cunningham's scoring gravity yet again attracts the attention of three defenders on the below pick-and-roll drive. Cunningham recognizes the help defender rotating to the block, so instead of trying to finish through the more explosive defender, Cunningham shifts his momentum to jump out of bounds, instead of towards the rim, to create a passing lane. As Cunningham is in mid-air, he stares down his teammate in the corner. This look gets the weakside defender to commit to the corner shooter. Cunningham then delivers a perfect pass to the wide-open shooter above the break.

Again, Cunningham displays his elite ability to create on the move, read the floor, and understand the defense's positioning. Cunningham denies the screen and dribbles to the elbow, inviting the double team. By keeping his dribble at the elbow, Cunningham has forced the drop defender to engage and the help defender to fully commit to the roller. This action leaves the weakside defender on an island torn between two players in very different parts of the floor. Once Cunningham recognizes the weakside defender commits a little too high to the above-the-break shooter, Cunningham whips a one-handed live-dribble pass to the open corner shooter's pocket.

Cunningham's ability to create while on the move is also a valuable tool in transition. Cunningham's size makes him a good rebounder which helps initiate transition opportunities more quickly. He always has his head up and is excellent at properly weighting his passes. In the NBA, this pass is an automatic three points.

While most of Cunningham's playmaking will stem from the perimeter due to his role as a primary initiator, his size will create many mismatches that will take him into the post. Cunningham scored 0.959 PPP (75th percentile) in post-ups this season, but once shooters surround him, his playmaking from the post will be extremely valuable.

Below, Cunningham patiently works his way into the paint after establishing his post-up. His scoring gravity, and the team's general lack of spacing, attracts four defenders into the paint. Cunningham has the size and vision to see over the defense, allowing him to make the skip pass to the opposite corner shooter.

Finally, Cunningham yet again dazzles with his interior passing out of the pick-and-roll. The defender initially does a great job avoiding the screen, but Cunningham is patient and uses the rescreen. This move puts the defender on Cunningham's back and creates a two vs. one with the drop defender. Cunningham attacks the drop defender to force him to engage and then takes a slight dribble to his left, creating a passing lane to deliver a beautiful bounce pass around the defender.

I know it feels like an unnecessary amount of playmaking film to dissect. Still, it is essential to hammer home that Cunningham's assist numbers do not indicate his playmaking prowess. Cunningham can create out of any situation for his teammates. He may not have as many jaw-dropping assists as LaMelo Ball, but his systematic, efficient approach will make him one of the best primary initiators in the league.

Besides his turnovers and lack of elite athleticism, Cunningham's defense is the other area of concern I've seen people express. While Cunningham may not be the best defender in the country, his defense should not be considered a concern. If you watch Oklahoma State, it is impossible not to notice the frantic, heavy switching scheme they play with. This philosophy will automatically lead to some lapses that don't accurately depict an individual player's defensive ability.

Cunningham needs to improve some aspects of his defense as his rotations can periodically be late and his closeouts sloppy.

Cunningham was far too high in his stance, and his footwork was too slow to adjust to the drive. While there are a handful of examples of lazy defense like the above clip, there are much more that show off Cunningham's excellent footwork, instincts, and awareness.

This time, Cunningham closes out with better balance and a broader base. This stance allows him to not bite on the fake and adjust to the drive. Cunningham does an excellent job of cutting off the drive, absorbing the contact, and then recovering to contest the jumper.

Like most players, Cunningham will occasionally struggle to stay in front of quicker opponents, but his on-ball defense is generally quite positive. On this drive, Cunningham shows good balance and almost perfect (crosses his feet once) footwork to contain the drive. After shutting down the drive, Cunningham also has the awareness to realize his job isn't done and recovers to contest the floater.

Finally, Cunningham's floor awareness also makes him a quality team defender. Here, Cunningham quickly shifts to cut off the potential backdoor cut from the left corner. As Arkansas looks to reverse the ball, the guard makes an excellent cut to the lane. Cunningham promptly recognizes this and cuts off the drive, which allows his teammate to recover to intercept the additional pass.

Saying Cade Cunningham is one of the most well-rounded prospects in recent years is not hyperbolic. He is a two-way wing with the skills of a point guard. He is a versatile defender who can also knock down threes off the bounce or catch. On top of all that, Cunningham is a natural leader who absolutely adores basketball.

Cunningham has shades of Luka Doncic, Chris Paul, and Jimmy Butler in his game. He is a basketball savant who will be a team's 6'8 point guard. Cunningham may not end up as a multi-time MVP, few do, but his talent and upside are undeniable. There are some excellent prospects at the top of the 2021 NBA Draft, but Cade Cunningham is the clear-cut top player.

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