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.