Cade Cunningham Plays the Orchestra /// Player Deep Dive & Scouting Report
On an avenue of the basketball world where people are constantly trying to find the next hidden gem, Cade Cunningham glimmers like a rare pink diamond. I don’t care if you think that’s an odd way to put it. I’m happy with who I am. My first time seeing him play, I'd come with the plan of watching other players, but like Monteray Jack from Rescue Rangers was drawn to cheese, so I was drawn immediately to this smooth, over-sized point guard for the Texas Titans that just seemed to perpetually be making the right play. In fact, even though I was there to absorb as many players as I could, I inevitably kept gravitating to watch the him. I only mildly regret that decision. Actually, you know what? I just realized that I don’t regret it at all.
Cade is a Dallas-area kid. He played the first leg of his high school career at Bowie High School, in Arlington, Texas. From there he transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida, which has turned into a perennial powerhouse and a finishing school for high-level NBA prospects. Guys like Ben Simmons. RJ Barrett. D'Angelo Russell. Joel Embiid. Dakari Johnson? Cade joins that lineage.
Cade's family seems to be a fertile ground for hoops IQ, and I have to assume that this is a driving force and influence in his makeup as a player. His older brother Cannen was a steady-but-limited contributor for SMU in the early 2010s under Larry Brown, and their dad, Keith, was by all accounts a cerebral, highly-recruited quarterback prospect that went on to sign with Texas Tech in the mid 80s.
Listening to Cade talk, you get the sense that he’s the product of a level-headed environment, combining that X and O influence of his father, and the guidance of his brother, who's been through the wars of college basketball in a major conference. Cade talks glowingly about his older brother, saying that he's his mentor and trainer, so when Cannen took a job on the staff at Oklahoma State, it became widely believed that Cade would suit up in the black and orange and make T. Boone Pickens excitedly mash his hands together from his throne of hundred dollar bills. I’d imagine that Cannen's texts have one common theme.
A TRULY TERRIFIC TEMPLATE
As a primary ball handler and facilitator, Cade has a unique build. You'll see him listed at either 6'6" or 6'7", depending on the source, and he's also had his wingspan measured at seven feet. That’s a significant plus wingspan for his player type.
Cunningham's not the type of quick-twitch athlete that makes you rewind the tape over and over, but for Cade's size, he's an intriguing blend of lower body strength and balance, and he’s far from a slouch in terms of flexibility and speed. His frame looks like it could very easily add a substantial amount of strength, and I do think that he could become a more physically imposing player at his position. He's more or less a tight end with the mind of a QB1 that's out there playing point guard.
The traditional and conventional thinking on what types of players should be molded into this or that position has (thankfully) evolved over the years. Why can’t a huge guy shoot over the defense from the perimeter? Why can’t a 6-3 guy play off the ball and shoot 10 threes a game? Why can’t a tank of a seven footer be the primary ball handler? If anything, in this era where the game has spread waaaay out and pick-and-roll and spot-ups league-wide have steadily increased in the NBA over the past few years, you could argue that bigger playmakers are actually preferable.
Changes in the rules have put a premium on guys that can make plays in a crowd. That is, draw attention and still hold their ground and function. Players with the pace and poise that Cunningham has can snake pick-and-rolls to get into a central vantage point of the floor and hit shooters, throw over the top of dropped bigs, or create their own offense.
Cade fits this modern idea brilliantly. I wouldn’t consider him an elite ball handler, but his balance, strength, vision and quality of handle allow him to capably leverage that size as a playmaker for a majority of the time. He’s not the flashiest distributor on the block, but Cade is a very gifted passer, and the consistency of his reads is great. Because of his size, he’s not that Ant-Man-type of passer that constantly sneaks into the gaps and wraps drop-off passes around defenders. He reliably angles and re-angles screens to his advantage, and much like Luka Doncic, does seem to enjoy finding that weakside skip that shifts the entire defense.
I think that Cade has the potential to be an elite pick-and-roll player and playmaker at the college and NBA levels. He’s an offensive cake that’s not fully baked—there are blemishes that need to be shined—but I absolutely think that he’s in the vicinity as Doncic and Harden both physically and as a multi-tiered creator. He’s got the awareness to make the right read and the touch to make the right lob, pocket pass or skip. I think he might be the most intriguing combination of size and skill as a pick-and-roll operator that's come out of the American amateur game in a while.
Some players play an instrument, and some players play the orchestra. We talked about this a bit back during the NBA season, but the best live-dribble playmakers know that pressure is not necessarily your enemy. It's a tool. It's your friend. It's that Batman idea that your fear can actually flip around and be weaponized. Watching Cade sense and feel the gravity of the floor shift towards him, you can tell that he has a grasp of that concept.
I’m intrigued by the fact that he seems to expand to whatever context he's in. Along with Tyrese Haliburton, who’s a sophomore in college at Iowa State, Cunningham was probably the best player on the USA's FIBA U19 team. I’ve never spent time with him, so it’s hard for me to fully know without assuming, but Cade seems like a schematic sponge. EYBL is light work for someone this physically mature and advanced in how he thinks the game.
MR. CUNNING HANDS
There's a subtle detail within Cade's game that I think can go unnoticed, and to me that's the quality of his hands. I'm not sure just how big they are, but his coordination and his timing with his hands is stupendous. You frequently see guys with absurd measurements that simply throw their athleticism around and create havoc. Cade is an extractor, and it’s almost funny to watch offensive players have that moment of ‘what the hell just happened?’
This talent of the talons shows up frequently on the defensive end. If you drive anywhere in his vicinity, it's highly possible that he'll dig out your dribble and be going the other way. If weakside action is happening, he's great at sniffing it out and breaking up plays. This one in particular jumps out: watch how aware Cade is of the potential pass without being overly committal. He does this all the time.
He does have his lapses, and on the ball I do think that he struggles a bit with explosive ball handlers, but Cade has a knack for the little things and I think he’s gifted in terms of positional intelligence and timing as a team defender. Again, on his high school team, he was selective in utilizing that gift. In some ways this is what I've hoped for from Luka: that ability to flip his angular instincts to the defensive side of the floor, but Cade seems to be ahead, in that sense. This is where he differs from the load-bearing offensive orchestrators that were brought up before. In this sense I think he's unique. It's not a common thing, to get that kind of three-level pick-and-roll acumen and a switchable, positionally adept defender on the other end. In the immortal words of Dr. Dre: that's the difference.
CADE & THE SHOTS UNMADE
While most every aspect of Cade's game exudes maturity and intelligence, his scoring is a little bit puzzling. The equation just doesn't balance. How could someone with exceptional hands, all kinds of dynamic passing IQ and touch and such good spatial judgment be such an inconsistent finisher and shooter?
Samples can be misleading, but in nearly all of the footage I watched, Cade really struggled to shoot the ball with a live dribble. His mechanics don't set off alarms in the way that some prospects' do, but if you just watch Cade's load up and fluidity from his feet to the tips of his fingers, without looking at the goal, you'd think 'well that doesn't seem all that troublesome.' Maybe it's his confidence, or something we’re unaware of, but Cade's misses are alarmingly bad at times. Like, we're talking wide left or dramatically short. Near Michael Scott-level misses.
I should be clear: it’s not dire situation. It’s just lacking. It’ll prevent him from being a plus off the ball as a spot-up guy and it’ll prevent him being effective off screens. If he ever becomes a legitimate threat in those settings, he’ll be a supreme pain in the ass for defenses.
You'll hear people hammer over and over the idea that free throw shooting is an indicator of future growth, and based on his mechanics and performance at the line, this could be the case with Cade. In both the EYBL circuit and in the FIBA U19 games, he shot about 75% from the line. It might be a case of him impersonating a good shooter until he actually becomes one, but for now, he only really seems comfortable creating his own shot when he's backing down smaller players and getting to his turnaround.
The other curious area is his finishing and his middle game. Again — these are areas where it would seem that Cade's passing touch and physical presence as a ball handler would carry over, but something's just amiss about it. He just seems overly bothered by the presence of a defender, and shrinks when he takes the hit. He gets blocked a lot. This does not mirror his reaction to ball pressure at all, which makes you think that this could evolve with time. It does seems to be that some off-hand development needs to happen: there are tons of instances where he's jumping off of two feet and floating to the left while shooting that shot-putt floater with his right hand. It's very similar to what Donovan Mitchell does once he hits the lane for the Jazz.
Cade does occasionally punch it in traffic, and yes, those are fun. Still, dialing in his comfort level with physicality around the rim seems to be an ongoing area of growth. I know he suffered an injury in 2017 while attempting a dunk. At times I wonder if that is lingering in his mind when he goes to really commit to being in the air? That’s purely speculation, but that split-second of ‘oh shit’ when you see contact coming can make all the difference.
A positive angle on this is that his weakness doesn't manifest as waste within his offensive game. He doesn’t force bad shots and he’s not stubborn about getting his. Cade's primary goal is to orchestrate. I’ll take the optimist view here and look at the indicators within Cade's game and assume that he’s going to grow. Frankly, in order for him to achieve that elite status that we talked about, it has to improve. For all of his playmaking gifts to jump to another level, his ability to be a threat as a shot creator is paramount. Coverages are just too sophisticated in the NBA for a non-shooter to dominate a pick-a-roll consistently.
THE PACE & THE POISE
All aspects considered, I think Cade is the best player in the 2020 class. At 18-years-old, I think he could be a highly-impactful creator and team defender if he was playing college basketball this year. His pace, his poise, the extent of his playmaking command, his advanced instincts in the team defensive setting — in those terms I think he’s ahead of his peers.
Still, he’s not perfect. The work to be done is there and it's substantial. If he starts to tap into those aspects of his potential, I think you've got a perennial all-star, and very likely an All-NBA-type of player. If he doesn't, he's probably still going to have a great career. I find him to be a real joy to watch. Let me know if you agree.