Any generational prospect should be able to compare favorably to other similar prospects. Cade Cunningham has great dimensions, frame, and shooting ability, but let’s see how he stacks up to past top 3 picks who were teenage offensive hubs at wing or guard.
In this case we will look at 2P% since that is more predictive of creation ability and less noisy than eFG%, assist to turnover ratio which more informative than raw TOV%, as well as offensive rebounding and free throw drawing over the past 20 drafts.
These guys are all in a roughly 1 year age range outside of old man OJ Mayo, and Cade is in the upper portion of that range. Among this group he rates dead last in 2P% and offensive rebounding rate, and is solidly below average in assist to turnover and free throw rate.
Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs are both projected outside of the top 3 in this year’s draft but they absolutely destroy Cade as efficient offensive hubs in terms of 2P% and assist:TOV ratio.
Even prospects seen as decidedly non-elite such as Anthony Edwards and RJ Barrett were better at everything except having a slightly lower free throw rate while being nearly a full year younger. Cade is bigger and better at shooting, but his basketball playing ability is not clearly above these guys by any means. Yet neither received a fraction of the hype and adoration that Cade has garnered.
Cade has been compared to Ben Simmons with a jump shot, which is ridiculous since Simmons demolishes him in all 4 categories.
Cade has also been compared to a bigger James Harden, which is also comical since Harden destroys him in all 4 categories. And Harden also destroyed him in all 4 as a freshman when he was nearly a full year younger.
Athletic guards like Bradley Beal, John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Ja Morant topped him in all 4 categories and Markelle Fultz was only a hair behind in FT rate.
Jayson Tatum is the only player that Cade edges out in 2 categories with better assist to turnover and free throw rate by a hair each while being about half a year older. And unlike the rest of the list, Cade is not bigger or better at shooting than Tatum. And Tatum was not perceived as a can’t miss star entering the draft by any stretch.
Brandon Ingram has similar dimensions and was a full year younger than Cade trumping him at all categories except slightly lower free throw rate, and he still was bad at NBA basketball for 3 seasons before figuring it out.
Jaylen Brown is an outlier NCAA statistical overperformer, yet he still trumps Cade in 3 of 4 categories.
Cade was a better NCAA shooter than Tatum, Ingram, and Brown, but each of those three makes 38-40% NBA 3P– what are the odds that Cade is significantly better than them as a pro? He could be one of the all time great NBA shooters, but it’s very rare for high usage guys outside of Steph to make > 40% from 3.
OJ Mayo is a bit older than this group, but his statistical profile to highly similar to Cade. He dominated high school by being physically developed early, then showed up to NCAA with less athleticism than anticipated but still did fairly well by being an OK enough creator and knockdown shooter at 41% 3P 80% FT. If Cade is a bigger OJ Mayo, that’s a useful NBA player, but is it really a guy you take top 3?
Carmelo Anthony profiles similarly to Cade physically and stylistically as an iso scorer who relies on his jump shooting. But he crushes Cade on rebounds, with solidly better 2P% and assist:TOV while being 8 months younger and leading Syracuse to an NCAA title. Melo wasn’t the most efficient fellow in the NBA, so if Cade is a less efficient version of the same thing– is he really worth a top 3 pick?
The Limit of Shooting
While shooting is a vitally important part of basketball, it is its own skill in isolation and does not connect to other parts of the game. Especially not the physical or cerebral ones that lend themselves to greatness.
Players like Dirk and Durant have been able to dominate with shooting using their elite height and reach to get their shot off whenever they want. But Cade doesn’t have that same reach, and is going to need to rely on his basketball playing ability.
And if you watch him play, there are multiple issues that come up. He is not crafty or explosive enough to create many easy attempts for himself, and often bullies his way as close to the rim as possible until pulling up for a difficult contested shot.
While he is a willing passer who moves the ball in transition and sees the floor well, he is only a good but not great passer and detracts with turnovers as his loose handle often gets stripped and he frequently throws sloppy passes away.
He has a rudimentary approach to offense where he loves to spam the pass or shoot button without putting much thought into the quality of shot that ensues. In tandem with his loose handle, this leads to frequent turnovers for himself as well as his teammates who often receive his passes in difficult 1 on 2 situations.
These flaws would all be easier to forgive if he was more physically dominant, but he rebounds offensively as well as a small guard and gets to the line at an ordinary rate. He does not have the best motor or effort, and does not atone for his offensive mistakes with defensive dominance, and it is not clear that he is on track to become an above average defensive player in the NBA.
These sum to fairly significant flaws, and are not typical concerns for a top 3 pick let alone a consensus #1 overall.
Do the Numbers Reflect Reality?
To some extent he was in a suboptimal situation playing for a not so good NCAA coach surrounded by mostly defensive talent, but that is the case for most elite prospects. NCAA coaches and offenses are typically not good, but the true studs find a way to stuff the stat sheet anyhow.
There is some small possibility that he was affected by the pandemic, which caused him to underperform in the mental aspects of the game relative to his prior expectations. You would need to strongly believe that some combination of COVID and suboptimal situation dimmed his output to even think about him at #1.
But there is the other possibility that the guy has a basic operating system that was in effective in high school where he physically developed sooner than his peers and often was playing on all-star teams that could outrun everybody in transition. And now taking the step up to NCAA against guys physically closer to him, his limited basketball IQ is getting exposed. This is something that happens much more frequently to hyped prospects than having their talent hidden by poor NCAA situations, so it is the most likely explanation for his performance.
Also it is worth noting that if you want to give extra weight to his priors for other aspects, it is also worth considering he significantly outperformed his expectation as a shooter. If he shoots like his NCAA self and plays like his high school self he will be very good, but if he shoots like his high school self and plays like his NCAA self, he is going to be massively disappointing.
Is Cade Obviously Top 3 in this Draft?
Cade offers some major warts that are not typically stomached by top 3 picks, so why is beyond the shadow of a doubt in the top 3 in this draft? Because his shooting is THAT valuable? Because we are that certain that his situation dragged down his numbers in a way that has yet to happen with past top 3 picks? An explanation would be nice, because there is nothing on film or in his stat sheet that makes anything obvious other than he has a fairly easy path to a decent NBA starter.
But even that is far from a lock if he is going to be developed into a suckier Carmelo Anthony rather than a bigger Klay Thompson who provides elite 3 + D support.
Evan Mobley plays with a surgical precision in terms of his movement and decision making that obviously trumps Cade’s style of bludgeoning you to death with difficult shot attempts. He is hands down the better prospect.
It seems that some people have accepted that Mobley is better or it is close. But that’s where it ends. The idea that Cade might not be top 2 is a taboo idea in a world where prospects like RJ Barrett and Anthony Edwards were relentlessly bashed for warts arguably less significant than what Cade brings to the table.
Why do we need to take him over Jalen Suggs, who is cerebrally multiple tiers above Cade as well as more athletic and efficient? Cade is bigger and better at shooting, but it is not clear that this is more valuable.
Why do we need to take him above Scottie Barnes who is physically superior with slightly better dimensions, and far better offensive efficiency and defensive effort? Cade has a major shooting advantage and Barnes has nasty flaws in his defensive fundamentals that need improvement, but you are more likely to get a superstar from a guy like Barnes who needs to learn to shoot than a guy like Cade who can already shoot but needs to learn how to play.
Even after those guys, Franz Wagner offers pristine decision making and defensive play while having better dimensions than Cade and not being clearly worse at shooting. Cade had a better shooting signal this season, but Franz has made > 80% FT and taken a decent rate of 3PA since he was 16, and this is the first season that Cade did either.
Cade theoretically has more upside because of his creation that is less efficient than any top 3 pick basically ever. But why do we NEED to gamble on inefficient creation just in case it becomes efficient, especially in a non-elite athlete lacking a strong first step. They are the same age, and there is zero question that Franz is the better player right now. Per 100 stats:
You are basically stomaching an extra 3.8 Cade turnovers and 3.5 2PA than mostly brick for what? 2.1 more 3PA and 3.6 FTA? It’s not apples to apples since Michigan is a better offense with a better coach and Cade is playing a more difficult role, but come on now. Cade’s creation is mostly just more bricks and turnovers than Franz, and Franz is essentially a lock to be better defensively. If Cade isn’t a significantly better shooter who figures out how to navigate defenses that can match up with him athletically over time, he isn’t going to be a more useful NBAer than Franz.
I have already written about Cade’s numbers paling in comparison to those of Alperen Sengun, but let’s revisit since looking at their numbers side by side is so fascinating
It is inherently more efficient to run offense through a perimeter ball handler like Cade rather than a post player like Sengun, but can anybody look at these numbers with a straight face and say that Cade is a clear favorite to be the better offensive player in the NBA?
And the crazy thing is Sengun isn’t even that far behind as a shooter and has superior steal and block rates. It is not clear who projects to be the better defensive player. Frankly is it not clear that Cade projects to be better at Sengun at anything outside of shooting, where Sengun could close the gap in time.
Wing Creators are Only Valuable when they are Good
There seems to be an assumption that because Cade was the #1 RSCI that he is an elite wing creator, and that all of his shortcomings can be attributed to bad teammates. But that is just not something that happens to prospects who are good enough to run an NBA offense based on every comparison that can be found in the past 20 years.
The most analogous prospect to Cade in terms of both distribution of strengths and weaknesses and playing situation is likely Khris Middleton. He played for Texas A&M who thrived on bully ball and defense, as their offense was driven by offensive rebounds and free throws with mediocre shot making and turnover rates during his sophomore season– much like Oklahoma State.
Yet Middleton was slightly better across the board at the same age and still slid to round 2. This is in part because he was hidden by starting college early as a young freshman and battling injuries and bad 3P% variance as a junior when he missed 12 games and shot 26% behind the arc.
Cade was a much better NCAA shooter, but Middleton is a career 40% 3P, 88% FT shooter in the NBA, and it is not likely Cade is better by any significant margin.
But even based on his NBA success, he definitely was never a #1 overall talent. He is a highly useful secondary piece who provides a nice intersection of shooting, passing, and defense to be a low end all-star, but is only in the NBA finals because he is playing alongside 2x MVP Giannis.
And based on the numbers, Cade is a clear underdog to be as good as Middleton in the NBA. If you give extra weight to his priors and slightly better dimensions, then perhaps he is only a small underdog to be Middleton, but that is not the type of player you target at #1 overall.
This is especially true that when he is being drafted to be a primary creator instead of a complementary piece, which makes it more likely that he follows a suboptimal developmental path. This is what happened to Andrew Wiggins when he was overused as an inefficient high volume creator.
So when you are running the risk of getting a guy who is technically NBA caliber but somewhat gross to max like a different flavor of Andrew Wiggins, taller OJ Mayo, or less efficient Carmelo Anthony in the hopes of landing Khris Middleton or at best Jayson Tatum, but zero chance of Luka or Harden. That is not a guy who obviously belongs in the top 3, let alone #1 overall.
This Lottery is Good
It would be one thing to lock in Cade as #1 in a draft like last year where nobody really stood out in a sea of mediocrity. But this year has so many more interesting options at the top. Mobley is a legit #1 candidate, and then Suggs, Barnes, Franz, and Sengun are all nice consolation prizes.
Cade’s priors should count for something, especially in light of the pandemic adding randomness to the season. We cannot assume his NCAA performance was indicative of his precise self, so perhaps he is the correct #2 overall.
But at the same time, his NCAA warts were so nasty both on the stat sheet and on film, that it is difficult to treat his goodness with any certainty. It is simply not clear that he is one of the best 5 prospects in a talented lottery.
This may sound like a hot take at face value, but the only past top 3 pick who really shared his distribution of strengths and weaknesses was OJ Mayo, and he even pales in comparison to 2nd rounder Khris Middleton. So the real hot take is consensus’s idea that he is a clear #1 overall, as there is no information that even remotely supports the notion.
Nicely fleshed out! This is starting to feel a ton like the 2014 draft, especially with how your board is lining up against the consensus. For instance, you had Nurkic and Capela 5th/6th above Wiggins and Jabari. Nurkic didn’t go until 16 and Capela until 25 (also Jokic #16- nice!!). Teams are smarter now but it still seems like there’s some Euro bias, like will Sengun crack the top 10? The parallels with you having Embiid #1 vs. Wiggins and Jabari is hilarious compared to the Cade/Mobley talk we have this year
It’s funny, I’m tempted to do a post where this reminds me of 2014 in so many ways. Between the Embiid/Wiggins Mobley/Cade parallels, Sengun with all of the awesome international bigs being slept on.
Jalen Suggs has his similarities to Marcus Smart. We have this mysterious young kid from Australia again (although hopefully Giddey is better than Exum!).
Scottie Barnes has parallels to Aaron Gordon as a toolsy guy with so much potential if he learns to shoot.
And if Jalen Green goes #2, he isn’t exactly the mold of Jabari Parker but they are both empty calories scorers with big flaws. And his actual doppelganger Zach LaVine is later in the draft!
It really feels like history is repeating.
It’s funny how Euro bias always seems to come at the wrong time. Last year Deni did very little in Israel but goes top 10, now Sengun does everything and may not go lotto. It will be interesting to see if he gets past Kings at #9 and Spurs at #12, who seem sharp enough to see past the narratives and roll the dice on him.
Yeah it’s really interesting to see it all laid out like that. That’d be a great piece! Make sure to throw in some of your blurbs about Nikola and others from your final big board before the draft. Plenty of misses just like anyone else but your hits are right on the money.
As an Orl fan the inconsistent Euro bias really hurts. Where were all these Euro skeptics when Hezonja went top 5? Not trying to relitigate that draft, but it’s just funny how the narrative shifts year to year.
I think the issue with euros is when scouts try to get too cute with subjective reads, because for better or worse they are all inferior physically to NBA players. Hezonja wasn’t a star in Europe, but he was sold as an elite athlete who fits the ideal 3 + D archetype. Except when he got to the NBA, he looked small and nowhere near as athletic alongside the best athletes in the world.
Same with Deni– everybody was so high on his IQ and effort, which may be enough for a toolsy 5* recruit who plays for Duke or Kentucky. But for a random Israeli guy he wasn’t strong, long, or athletic enough to parlay this into anything useful as a rookie and doesn’t have much to build on going forward.
You are better off focusing on the statistical outlier internationals and ignoring the rest. Except for whatever reason, when an outlier like Luka, Jokic, or Sengun comes around, that’s when scouts want to complain about them being too slow and end up drafting a bunch of idiot athletes instead.
Pretty amazing how often they get it wrong.
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I go back and forth on Cade, but I buy the argument for him going #2. I do think that you’re underrating his shooting and the effect that has on his value as a prospect.
IMO, He’s one of the very best one-and-done shooting prospects in recent memory; he’s at 40% on high volume (idk where to find his high school stats but I’d assume he’s still mid-to-upper 30s if you add them to his college sample), he can shoot off the dribble, he’s 85% from the line, and his form looks really great to my eye. Off the top of my head, all of the top perimeter players to come out recently were lacking in at least one of those areas (Tatum, Fultz, Ball, Luka, Trae, Brown, Ingram, Edwards, Ball, Barrett, Beal, Wiggins, Herro), and many of them developed into excellent shooters anyway. I think he’s more likely to reach the PG/Middleton/Tatum level of shooting than you give him credit for, and he has outs to surpass them.
His 2pt percentage and A:TO are definitely red flags, but they can partially be explained by his team situation. If you swapped, say, Cade and RJ, what would their stats look like? RJ was better in both categories, but he had Zion, Tre Jones, and a better coach. Cade didn’t play with a true point guard, and he didn’t play with any shooters — even Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz arguably had better spacing. It’s hard to say exactly how much of an impact this had on his stats, but I don’t necessarily think that his BBIQ is bad or even not good. To me, he performed how I’d expect a blue-chip wing with good passing acumen and average-ish ballhandling to perform in a ball-dominant role on a bottom-tier spacing team with a mediocre coach.
So he’s certainly not an “elite playmaker” or even really a point guard, but as a wing who can play on and off the ball he has an attractive range of upsides — he could be RJ with better shooting, Paul George with average defense, more athletic Khris Middleton, and on the chance that he lives up to his high school billing he’d be a better playmaker than any of them. Even with his flaws, it’s easy to see him as a top 20 player — Paul George still has a lot of sloppiness in his game, but he’s an all star on offense alone because size + off dribble shooting is so OP, and prospects who project better than Cade in those areas rarely come around.
I agree with everything you said, I am just not sure exactly how much the team situation matters and I think it is prone to getting overstated.
Paul George with average D or toolsier Khris are comps I can very much get behind…but if that’s somewhere in the upper bound of his outcomes, and he can have a number of much more frustrating ones, is that really something that is attractive at #2 in a very strong draft?
It’s not like he’s the only guy with top 20 upside outside of Mobley, there are like 7-8 other guys who have it as well.
So I’m really struggling to see what makes him stand out from the rest. He just seems to be one in a thick pack of attractive guys that could be ranked in any number of orders.
If we assume that his BBIQ isn’t fried (and I don’t think that it is), then I think that he’s more likely to reach that upside than the other guys. He already does the “star wing” things, and becoming a top 20 player just requires translating and incrementally improving on the things that he already did in college (and fixing his handle a bit).
In contrast, Suggs has to greatly improve his shot and as a smaller player has to improve his ballhandling more than Cade does in order to reach his upside. Franz has to prove that he can guard NBA players on-ball well, speed up his shot release, improve his results from deep, and replicate his flashes of pick-and-roll success without the benefit of god coach Juwan Howard in order to reach his upside. Scottie Barnes has the more tantalizing peak, but he has to learn to shoot from a ~30% and <70% base. Sengun is probably the most likely to translate his goodness but is in a much worse mold than Cade.
Maybe I'm underrating Cade's downside? But what do you see as his frustrating downside scenarios? Wiggins' lack of shooting and passing really undermine the advantages he has over Cade, plus he developed poorly, plus he might not care about basketball. Jabari refused to pass or play defense, ditto Carmelo. OJ Mayo got busted for drugs and likely had character flags that hampered his development. Fwiw I get frustrated watching Paul George since he runs people over, coughs up the ball, and throws up wild layups much more than I feel like a +5 offensive player should, so I see Cade being similarly frustrating no matter how good he ends up being.
Plus, the combination of his team situation, covid weirdness, and high school reputation give him a teeny sliver of truly elite upside — maybe he can be something like playoff Harden.
His BBIQ isn’t fried per se, but there are shades of grey and his feel for the game is definitely lacking in a number of regards.
If he had better feel for the game, he would offensive rebound better than a guard. Maybe it says something about his effort, his athlecism, his ability to read the ball coming off the ball, or all of the above, but you don’t just have a stat hole that bad on a team that crashes orebs without *something* being missing.
And he doesn’t do any of the star wing things outside of shoot! Yeah he is a good passer but it still is far from special, and he is massively massively inefficient at creation.
I still think Wiggins is the best downside comp. Yeah Cade is a much better shooter + passer, but his other flaws can still bring him to Wiggins level, bc Wiggins’ elite athleticism is a super valuable tool. Cade is going to need to be a better shooter because he takes worse shots, and he could turn it over more than Wiggins, and his non-elite athleticism makes defense harder.
And if he always has the ball, his shooting is going to be underutilized to space the floor. And you reach the point where his disadvantages relative to Wiggins cancel out his advantages, and he ends up being massively inefficient on high usage with bad rebounding and mediocre defense
And as good as his priors were, he definitely seemed overrated based on what I saw in AAU and with his freshman season I think he has pretty much disqualified himself as a Harden. The areas where he is weak you just don’t see in the elite stars at a young age.
What about Devin Booker? His profile is at least on the surface similar to Cade’s — lots of middle-efficiency shot creation, passing with high turnovers, limited athleticism. Yet Booker’s made it to low-tier all star caliber despite big turnover numbers and surprisingly meh 3 point shooting. While Cade is an underdog to become a middy god on the level of Booker, his physical advantages (similar ORB rate, higher steal, block, and FT rates, many more unassisted finishes, higher ratio of rim attempts to other 2s) give him a chance at having a better shot profile to make up for that. Cade also projects better on defense, has a good shot at outdoing him from 3, and has a chance at becoming a better playmaker.
So how likely is Cade to be better than Booker? I understand that “better Devin Booker” isn’t the MOST enticing upside for a top draft pick, but if regular Devin Booker is somewhere near the middle of Cade’s outcomes then that’s an enticing value at #2 IMO.
I think Cade should be viewed in a different lens. If you ignore his gigantic ATO red flag and discount his point forward potential, and treat him as an oversized shooting guard with elite high volume shot jacking, he is a reasonable top 3 prospect.
His point forward skills are good to have, not necessary for his development in the league. Ultimately, being a high usage ball pounder with reasonable passing ceilings and turnover warts is a better starting point than a non-passer with low turnover rates.
Not if he is going #1 overall. If his ball pounding is so impressive to GM’s that they want to draft him #1, it’s going to get developed in the NBA.
Second, there are like 7 great passers in the lottery, many with great size. If you don’t believe in Cade’s creation ability and want to take an elite 3 + D with low turnovers and good shot selection, just take Franz instead as he is just as good at passing but way better on defense with far fewer mistakes.
You can’t just turn Cade into Joe Ingles if his creation doesn’t work. You are riding or dying with his ball skills.
Cade is 42nd out of 133 prospects in my ag-adjusted PCP40 metric with 19.5 points. He’s inefficient. If he is your primary ball handler the whole team will suffer. He’s better served as a 3 and D SG or SF on a short leash.
Sengun is a much better project and points creator (33 points)
The Points Created Per 40 (balance of positives and negatives as @ their last season of college then age/experience adjusted) scores of the players in the table bears out the concern.
Cade comes in at 17th out of 21. You can also see that Wiggins, Brown. Ingram, Tatum. Mayo were projects picked for upside.
1 Ben Simmons 33.8
2 Zion Williamson 32.8
3 Ja Morant 28.3
4 Markelle Fultz 27.8
5 John Wall 27.2
6 Derrick Rose 26.4
7 D’Angelo Russell 26.1
8 Jalen Suggs 25.3
9 Kevin Durant 25.3
10 Scottie Barnes 24.7
11 James Harden 23.6
12 Carmelo Anthony 23.0
13 R.J. Barrett 22.6
14 Bradley Beal 21.6
15 Jayson Tatum 20.8
16 Brandon Ingram 19.9
17 Cade Cunning 19.5
18 Anthony Edwards 18.9
19 O.J. Mayo 18.4
20 Andrew Wiggins 17.8
21 Jaylen Brown 16.9
For a fulller metric explanation go to
Sengun looks more like 6’9″ to me based on his recent photo next to Hassan Whiteside.
Some of these look good, but seems like you are way too low on Harden + Durant not just based on their outcome, but they had awesome college stats. I can’t imagine ever rating Jalen Suggs or Derrick Rose ahead of Harden, for instance.
I’m not high or low on anyone. I punch in the player’s season totals and the numbers get crunched.
Just saw Harden has a stats doppleganger I’ve never heard of.
Jordan Adams (2014) PCP40: 23.8
7.1 3.1 3.5 0.2 2.0 2.9
James Harden (2009) PCP40: 23.8
6.2 4.7 1.9 0.4 3.8 3.2
HIs ‘problem’ efficiency-wise (at 19.9 years old) was TOs and PFs. Also his 3 wasn’t elite at approx 37%.
Durant couldn’t pass. Leading to turnovers and a lack of assists.
Also his score is still a top pick.
Check out my 2010 PCP40 redraft comparison
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