Currently the consensus #1 overall, Cade Cunningham offers some tantalizing strengths. He has an excellent NBA body and dimensions at 6’8″ with 7’1ish wingspan. He is an excellent shooter for his size making 40% from 3 and 84.6% FT as a freshman to go with his point forward skill set and ability to defend multiple positions and make plays defensively with a solid 2.5% steal rate.
It’s easy to see why he is so coveted, as prospects with his intersection of size, passing, scoring, and shooting rarely fail. But he comes with some funky warts that put a dent into his upside and makes him tricky to evaluate.
His biggest flaw is his lack of efficiency in spite of his excellent shooting. He posted a meager 104.2 ORtg on 28.6 usage– it is difficult to be that inefficient while making 40% 3P and 85% FT. But there are a number of cumulative flaws that chipped away at his efficiency.
Cade’s biggest wart is questionable decision making. He has good vision and is willing to push the pace in transition, but he often delivers passes to teammates in difficult positions while being closely guarded or 1 on 2.
He often seems more interested in moving the ball forward than he does in creating efficient opportunities, and teammates seem to get blocked or turn it over after receiving his passes inordinately often.
This also resulted in a poor assist to turnover ratio (3.5 vs 4.0 per game) and the team not missing a beat with him on the bench. From watching it seemed that Oklahoma State generated higher quality shot attempts when somebody other than Cade initiated, and it reflects with 53.8% 2P with him off the court vs 51.3% with him on.
This also reflects in his shot selection, as he often forced his way for difficult shots. Further, he has a somewhat loose handle and isn’t the most explosive athlete, which prevented him from creating many easy attempts for himself.
He was nevertheless able to create with his physical tools and shot making ability, but his high rate of difficulty in many of his attempts resulted in an underwhelming 46.1% inside the arc.
He also has a lackluster motor, as he posted a paltry 2.3% OREB% and only got 1 putback over the entire season. This also manifests in a sometimes lackadaisical approach to defense.
Prospects with Cade’s dimensions and quality assist and steal rates tend to be strong bets to be good defensive players in the NBA, but Cade’s inconsistent effort, ordinary athleticism, and questionable half-court IQ make it unclear how good he will be on this end.
In his OT game vs Oklahoma, most people were impressed with him scoring 40 points in a comeback win. But if you watch carefully, you can see an inordinate amount of pass attempts leading to a bad outcome. I timestamped 12 passes with a comment, although a number of them aren’t terrible decisions by Cade. He fed the big for poor postup attempts 4 times, which may have been a bigger flaw in his coach than himself. And at least one pass was a fine read where he turned it over because he threw it short. But if we are going to single out the truly bad decisions, here are the timestamps:
7:14 Runs PnR with Moncrieffe and oddly decides to pass it after giving opposing big ample time to recover, such that Moncrieffe is forced into a difficult shot while double teamed.
11:55 Passes to Moncrieffe streaking directly toward two defenders in transition and he blows the layup
29:42 Pushes it to Avery Anderson 1 on 2 in transition, and he gets the ball deflected out of bounds
37:17 Runs PnR with Moncrieffe streaking toward open lane with only 6’2″ DeVion Harmon available to help, but instead swings to tightly guarded Rondel Walker who travels
54:32 Runs PnR and dumps it off to tightly guarded non-handler Rondel Walker who is promptly stripped
This is a consistent theme with Cade. He has lapses in his awareness and makes sloppy passes that team his teammates in unfavorable positions more than you would like from a potential #1 overall pick.
Recently DraftExpress shared a video of Cade’s scoring highlights, and you can see that all of these shots are contested. His ability to make difficult shots is impressive, but he doesn’t have the burst to blow by opponents, or the handle or shake to wiggle around them. He plays a bulldozing style that enables him to create a high volume of shots, but not the most efficient ones.
How much will this limit him longterm?
It’s difficult to say. He was better in AAU, so perhaps to some extent he was affected by the pandemic restrictions and performed below his true ability.
Or maybe he has always depended on brawn over brains, and the step up in competition exposed weaknesses that weren’t apparent in AAU or high school.
Either way, it’s unlikely to be a death knell in light of his strengths. He sees the floor well and makes a number of good passes as well, so there is something to build on if he can improve his awareness and decision making. And his mold of big wing who can handle, pass, and shoot fails so rarely, he doesn’t need to improve a ton to be good.
But at the same time, it’s not the type of flaw you want to gamble on at #1 overall. If you are drafting him to be a 30 usage star, can you be comfortable with the fact that his creation includes a significant % of low quality attempts and turnovers for both himself and his teammates at this point?
And if you are drafting him to be a secondary creator a la Khris Middleton who can also space the floor and defend multiple positions, is that really a high enough upside mold to take at #1?
Cade has such a unique distribution of strengths and weaknesses he doesn’t have any particularly strong comps. But we can nevertheless walk through the roughly similar players to approximate his value.
The most optimistic comparison that can be made is Luka Doncic since both are point forwards with similar size and non-elite athleticism. Let’s compare Luka’s NBA rookie stats to Cade’s freshman stats:
In spite of only being 7 months older, Luka had a higher usage, his assist:TOV was twice as good (1.73 vs 0.86), he played more physically with better rebounding and free throw rates. And in spite of only making 32.7% 3P and 71.3% FT compared to Cade’s 40% 3p and 84.6%, he still had the better overall efficiency. Luka is clearly the better NBA creator than Cade was in NCAA.
Cade is nowhere near Luka’s stratosphere as a prospect. Luka is a god tier shot creator and Cade is merely good for his size, and his shooting advantage only slightly closes the gap because Luka’s advantages are so enormous.
If Cade was deservedly the obvious #1 pick, he would be better at the NCAA level than the obvious #1 pick who fits a similar archetype was at a similar age in the NBA.
Funny how Luka actually slid to #3 but now Cade is locked into #1 sans debate. Perhaps some Luka FOMO is contributing to his excessive hype.
We could also compare Cade to Kawhi as they have a number of similarities as sharp shooting point forwards.
At a glance it seems this may be a path to greatness…until you compare their rebounding rates and Kawhi destroys him with 11.2/26.6 vs 2.3/16.6. Kawhi has an all time elite motor, where Cade is weak, and this is why Cade is never going to sniff Kawhi’s defensive output.
Kawhi also had a better assist:TOV and slightly better overall efficiency in spite of only making 29% 3P And 76% FT. And Kawhi has progressed to an elite NBA shooter that Cade is not likely to surpass. And with likely overall less efficient offense, and significantly weaker defense and rebounding, it’s difficult to see Cade’s path to Kawhi’s level.
If we take a step down to Paul George we are getting warmer:
They have very similar distributions offensively, as being turnover prone point forwards with a significant dependency on shooting. Cade posted his #’s vs. better defenses so he should get a small edge offensively, but PG is the better athlete with a significant advantage in steals and rebounding. Cade is unlikely to match him defensively, and PG’s offense did develop about as well as could have hoped.
It’s plausible Cade is able to be a slightly better offense/worse defense version of PG, but he nevertheless seems like a clear underdog to have PG’s level of goodness:
Cade’s #1 kenpom comp shared a freshman season with many similarities:
Cade has a higher assist rate, but a similar assist:TOV. And Cade had a higher 3PA/100 (8.9 vs 6.9) and 3P% (40 vs 34), but Tatum had the better pre-NCAA FT% in the mid-high 80s vs 74.9% for Cade with neither attempting many 3’s. Meanwhile Tatum was 5 months younger with slightly better rebounding and 2P%. Overall they are close but Tatum gets the edge as the better prospect.
So it’s curious that Tatum wasn’t in the conversation for top 2 behind Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz whereas Cade is considered the consensus #1 overall.
Granted, Tatum ended up being the correct #1 in that class after landing in a great situation playing for Brad Stevens and developing about as well as possible. And there is no reason why Cade cannot be similarly good if he develops well. But again, he is slightly worse overall as a prospect, will almost certainly end up in a less favorable situation, and likely won’t develop as well, and he is a clear underdog to be as good as Tatum
Tatum’s teammate is Cade’s #2 kenpom comp.
Cade’s #’s are mostly better across the board, and he clearly has a stronger pre-draft profile than Brown statistically, who was even more turnover prone and inefficient than Cade.
It’s a slippery comp because Brown is a better athlete than Cade, was fortunate to play for an elite coach, and has been one of the biggest overperformers of pre-draft numbers in recent memory. But we are reaching the point where it’s unclear whether Cade is more likely to be better or worse than Brown, which makes him a somewhat reasonable comp in terms of overall value.
Middleton slid all the way to #39 in round 2 after starting school young and being injured and less effective in his final season as a junior. But his sophomore season where he was freshman aged seems to be indicative of his true value, and it is strikingly similar to freshman Cade:
They are basically twins! Cade is slightly bigger and maybe has 2″ to 2.5″ more wingspan. He also has higher block rate (KM career block rate was 0.9%), KM does better on the offensive glass, and otherwise these guys are nearly doppelgangers.
This is my favorite comp for Cade, as it is the type of player I believe his drafting team should try to develop him into.
The good news for Cade is that it’s difficult to come up with a truly frightening comparison for him, as big wings who are willing passers tend to perform well relative to draft slot. The most recents busts in that mold would be Evan Turner and Josh Jackson, who both have short arms and are poor shooters unlike Cade.
Then the one semi-interesting comparison who pops up in his top 10 kenpom comps is Andrew Wiggins. It’s a highly imperfect comparison because Wiggins had vastly superior athleticism and inferior passing + shooting, but let’s run with it for a moment:
Cade’s advantage in shooting and passing is significant, but in spite of that Wiggins was slightly more efficient overall as he was a better finisher and more willing to mix it up inside on the offensive glass and drawing free throws. And in spite of Wiggins being a tunnel visioned non-passer, Cade’s assist:TOV ratio wasn’t *that* much better.
Now let’s focus on the similarities: they were both consensus #1’s entering the season, who had tantalizing strengths but also a surprising amount of meh qualities that were largely overlooked by people anchored to their preseason hype. They both have lackadaisical streaks, looser than expected handles, and both are prone to mental lapses.
After seeing him in summer league, I wrote that Wiggins appeared to be pushed down the wrong path of high volume iso scorer. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had an excellent coach developing them, and Khris Middleton was a humble 2nd rounder never expected to lead a team. If whoever drafts Cade tries to force him into a high volume scorer who runs the offense, he may not be as effective as he would in a secondary creation role a la Middleton.
While he is a different type of player than Wiggins, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cade provide a similar career arc in terms of value if he is also pushed down the high usage path without developing the creation and decision making to justify it early in his career.
It seems fair to give Cade a reasonable target of being as good as Jaylen Brown or Khris Middleton, with Jayson Tatum being approximately the upper bound of his upside. His downside would be a different flavor of Andrew Wiggins, where he is an inefficient high usage player with his warts weighing a bit heavier than his tantalizing strengths.
It’s tough to say his odds of each path. On the upside, most players with his intersection of strengths tend to pan out, and given that he is the consensus #1 overall, the safest assumption is that he will be good more often than not.
But at the same time, he has an unique distribution and we haven’t seen many prospects with his specific weaknesses, so it’s not safe to get overconfident in his goodness.
Where Does He Fit in This Draft?
Although he is the consensus #1 overall, it is difficult to understand why he is valued above Evan Mobley. Mobley is more well rounded with fewer warts, more statistically productive, made a bigger team impact, and eye tests as more fluid and athletic.
There isn’t a clear case for Cade going higher. This strongly reminisces of Wiggins vs Embiid, where the public got too attached to a prospect hyped as generational, and neglected his myriad warts when a clearly superior prospect emerged. Mobley even has a higher BPM than Embiid (13.7 vs 11.9) and Cade has a slightly lower BPM than Wiggins (7.9 vs 8.3). Mobley smashes the eye test with his incredible fluidity like Embiid while Cade underwhelms with a somewhat sloppy approach like Wiggins. And unlike Embiid, Mobley doesn’t have any injury concerns to dampen his stock.
Mobley may not exceed Cade’s NBA value by the same margin as Embiid over Wiggins, but taking Cade first will likely prove to be some level of mistake in the long run.
After that, Cade has a solid case for #2 overall along with Jalen Suggs and Scottie Barnes. In particular Cade vs Barnes is an interesting comparison since they are both point forwards with funky distributions. I recently made a case as to why Barnes may be better. Cade is the much better shooter, but Barnes has 1-2″ more of dimensions, more defensive upside, and is the much better passer and decision maker with the ball.
It is fairly close between Barnes and Cade, but intuitively I would lean toward Barnes as his cumulative advantages are significant, and he has decent enough odds of developing an acceptable shot.
Suggs is a more challenging comparison because of his vastly inferior dimensions, but it’s easy to see him as the better prospect as well as the more explosive athlete with significantly higher basketball IQ.
After that, it’s difficult to value anybody else above him. Jalen Green is too small to be rated above him without being a better passer. Franz Wagner and Josh Giddey are a couple of late lotto sleepers who can easily be better than Cade, but are too role player-ish to value above Cade’s starry mold with any confidence.
Ultimately it’s fair to rank him anywhere in the #2 to #4 range, so he should have about the same stock as his insanely unrealistic upside comp Luka and his more reasonable upside comp in Tatum. Luka was an obvious market inefficiency at the time, but it is curious that he is valued so solidly above Tatum without any clear logic as to why. Tatum edges him out as slightly better in most categories.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t think this is a hot take. Based on available information, it seems the market is flat out wrong about Cade being the consensus #1 overall.