Cade Cunningham entered the season with comparisons to Luka Doncic or Ben Simmons with a jump shot as a primary creating wing star. As an NCAA freshman, his creation sorely disappointed, and those comparisons became unrealistic, but there was still clear potential to be a Khris Middleton or Jayson Tatum level wing creator.
Since the draft, a couple of pieces of new information have come to light. First, Cade was listed at 6’6″ on Detroit’s official roster after being listed at 6’8″ in college. The Pistons and other teams were using height in shoes for these measurements, although it was inconsistent how teams approaching rounding. The Pistons listed John Petty at 6’5 after he measured 6’5.75″, so it is plausible Cade is actually 6’6.5″ or 6’6.75″ in shoes. And he still should have a 7’+ wingspan, as he measured 7’0.25″ in 2019.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Cade is 6’6.5″ with 7’0.5″ wingspan. Those are still good wing dimensions, but they aren’t as good as advertised, which is a hit to his value.
Then summer league offered a decent litmus test for his creation ability. There was a common narrative that Cade was a much better shot creator in AAU, so his performance at Oklahoma State was uncharacteristic because of bad teammates and/or the pandemic. Then Cade came out and confirmed that Oklahoma State was indicative of his true creation talent, as he continued to lack the athletic pop or ball handling ability to get past defenders and create easy shots.
His NCAA offensive statistics were not all that far behind those of Tatum, but their rookie summer league is where they start to diverge heavily. Per 40 minute stats:
This is only 3 games for Cade vs. 6 for Tatum, and Cade would look much more respectable with one good game. But this difference is nevertheless huge. Tatum was creating much higher volume inside the arc with much greater efficiency, getting to the line much more frequently, with a significantly lower turnover rate.
Cade had a decent advantage in assist rate but not in assist:TOV. Further, at least 3 of his 7 assists were somewhat cheap where his teammates scored off the dribble after receiving a pass from Cade.
Cade did shoot 13/26 from 3 vs. 4/12 from Tatum in spite of less than half of the minutes. But since Tatum has become a 39.6% 3P shooter on high volume, there is limited room for Cade to provide more shooting value in the NBA.
Tatum is an example of a player who instantly showed more potential than he did as a good but not elite NCAA freshman, so it should not be surprising that he has solidly outperformed his college stats. Conversely, Cade has had all of his weaknesses amplified in summer league which bodes ill for his odds of reverting to his AAU creating self.
Granted, it is not a death knell. Khris Middleton was only slightly better than him as an NCAA creator at the same age, and a year older in summer league he showed little creation promise in a 14% usage role. So there still is room for Cade to provide competence in this regard long term, it just looks extremely dicey and is nowhere in the vicinity of where it was originally estimated.
Reasonable Upside Comp
There are a couple of positively redeeming qualities of summer league for Cade. First, he showed better activity and effort on defense than he did in college, averaging 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks in his 3 summer league games. He still made mistakes and was beat on multiple occasions, but he has the tools and instincts to be a good defensive player, and this improved effort was a step in the right direction.
Second, he got off a huge volume of 3PA that he made at 50%. The percentage doesn’t mean much in a vacuum since it’s such a small sample of shots, but he attempted 12.5 3’s per 40 minutes compared to 6.5 as a college freshman. He collectively attempted more 3’s than 2’s which is a good idea for him– between college and summer, he collectively has made 41.4% of 3s and 45.1% of 2s.
This was also a direction he trended in toward the end of his college career. He had more 3PA than 2PA in only 1 of his first 22 NCAA games, before attempting more 3PA in each of his final 5 games.
Even if his creation struggles persist, he still may be salvageable as a good 3 + D player with one clear optimistic comp: Klay Thompson.
It’s not a perfect statistical comparison since Klay stayed for 3 college years and steadily improved each season, but his average age over his career was only 7.5 months older than Cade. Let’s see how their numbers compare using Klay’s career stats:
They are basically twins. Cade’s age is an advantage, but given Klay’s continuous improvements over his career, it’s not a major one. Klay has developed in a player who has made 51%+ of his 2PA for his past 4 NBA seasons with a low turnover rate, which is about as good as one could have hoped his offense outside of 3P would have developed based on pre-draft.
As a non-shooting offensive player, Cade may be better or he may be worse. He has potential to draw more free throws and make a bigger impact as a passer, but if he spends too much time dribbling in circles, taking bad shots, and turning it over without significant improvements, he has potential to be a net negative in the categories where Klay took a huge leap.
Collectively, he has more potential to be worse creatively than Klay than better since he only showed slightly more potential in college, and Klay had such a good development arc.
NCAA shooting signal:
Klay had a higher 3PA rate, but Cade had slightly better %’s as a freshman than Klay’s career averages so it’s within his range of outcomes to be a Klay level shooter if he can catch up in volume.
As a shooter, Klay is a career 41.9% 3P on high volume. He has 7 of the top 40 3PM in a season for players who converted 40%+ from 3, Steph has 8 of these seasons, and nobody else has more than 2. Cade’s shooting was so good as a freshman that we cannot rule out that he is a slightly better shooter than Klay, but he needs to be a top 2 shooter of all time for that to happen. More likely he shoots 39% to 40% on slightly lower volume, which would make him about ~1 point worse per 100.
Cade has similar defensive versatility to Klay and similar NCAA steal, block, and rebound rates. But Klay developed into an above average defensive player, and Cade is unlikely to be a stopper. Cade has some potential to be slightly better than Klay on this end, but he is more likely to be average or a worse.
It’s clear why Klay Thompson was available at 11th overall in his draft– he was a good mold of 3 + D, but needed a number of things to go right to develop into the low end all-star that he is today. And Cade Cunningham is in a similar boat, as his pre-draft profile isn’t all that much stronger in spite of his #1 overall status.
But Cade Priors from High School and AAU were Elite
How much does this really matter? High school scouts get it wrong all of the time. If we look at recent prospects with #1 preseason hype that fell flat in college, it’s difficult to find any compelling examples where the high school priors should have been weighed heavier than NCAA performance:
|Prospect||RSCI||Draft Slot||Draft Year|
Granted, this is a subjective list with no clear criteria other than myself intuitively feeling scammed by the players that showed up relative to pre-existing hype. You could argue that Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba, and Emmanuel Mudiay also belong on the list as negative examples, but they were all in highly flawed molds that were about as good as expected. RJ Barrett, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown could be added as positive examples, but they were all about as good as advertised. They all had their flaws, but showed enough strength such that they had clear upside with no reason to be aggressively bearish.
If we focus on the above list there are a few common trends. First– not a single prospect who slipped in the draft was a wrongful overreaction. Muhammad, Giles, and Skal were complete busts, and if Cole Anthony’s recent summer league is any indication, he has good odds of following suit.
Austin Rivers looked like a bust early in his career, and then made significant improvements to become an OK-ish bench player. But he even at his peak he was a below average player. Cam Reddish was approximately replacement level as an NBA sophomore, and it’s difficult to get too excited over his upside but we will see if he can improve to a quality rotation player in time.
Everybody else was a top 3 pick, and Harrison Barnes likely would have been top 3 if he did not stay for his sophomore year and show limited improvement. Barnes ended up providing slightly above average slot value for #7 overall, but would have been below average for #2 or #3. Wiggins, Parker, Okafor, and Mayo all badly underperformed their slot value.
What can we learn from this? First, if we include Bagley, Bamba, and Mudiay, there is approximately one super hyped prospect that massively disappoints each year. Second, NBA talent evaluators seem to be much more forgiving of flaws for hyped prospects than they should.
It is too small of a sample to draw any firm conclusions, but it is worth wondering if having extreme pre-draft hype is more of negative signal than positive one for the guys who perform like ordinary lottery prospects. High school rankings are highly limited, but they do a good job of marking the prospects whose tools and skills offer clear potential for domination.
And if a player has potential to dominate, but does not dominate at the NCAA level, perhaps that is indicative of flaws that are cumulatively fatal for long term star potential. Maybe it is slower development than peers, or poor translation to higher levels of competition, or a lack of basketball IQ that was not easily discernible in high school. Regardless, it seems that disappointment early in NCAA career may be predictive of continued longterm disappointment.
How Did Cade Fall Short?
In Cade’s case, the issue may largely be that he developed physically before his peers. He measured 6’6 in 2019 and is still listed at 6’6 today, and his athleticism is highly underwhelming relative to expectations. He played largely on stacked teams that were able to dominate in transition, and now that he is required to create against set defenses that are physically equal or greater to him, he is simply not that good at it.
He also was purported to be a wizard passer with elite basketball IQ, but perhaps that was because it is easier to stand out passing in transition on high school all-star teams. He has good court vision and is a willing passer, but his basketball IQ is somewhat of a mixed bag as he often makes poor decisions with the ball and has mediocre defensive IQ.
He also has an underwhelming motor. He had an anemic NCAA offensive rebound rate for his size, his effort on defense was poor, and he hardly ever scored on cuts, handoffs, or off screen with limited off ball movement. It was nice to see him step up the defensive effort in summer league, but he still may have a bad motor over the large sample.
Collectively these aren’t minor flaws that can be overcome with hard work. They cumulatively put a major dent in his current value to a basketball team, and are hardcoded enough to provide major resistance to him ever becoming a top 10 star in the NBA.
Pedigree Yields Endless Opportunities
Another reason for the pattern of disappointment may be that top recruits get every chance to showcase their potential. If Cade was #15 RSCI playing for a stacked Duke, Kentucky, or Kansas team, he wouldn’t get carte blanche to dribble in circles to his heart’s content. Perhaps he would have had a pedestrian 23% usg, 15% ast rate or so if he was simply one of many talented players as opposed to the highest rated recruit in program history.
He didn’t *need* to create everything for Oklahoma State. He was simply allowed to because of his pedigree. Isaac Likekele’s usg/ast rates dropped from 23%/30% to 17%/19% in order to give the reigns to Cade. He had the green light to accumulate as much bulk stats as possible, regardless of his bad shots, turnovers, and overdribbling. Yet he posted merely good but not elite bulk offensive output, with 28.6% usg and 20.4% ast rates with poor efficiency in spite of his excellent shooting.
Cade has now shown glaring weaknesses in his two most recent settings between NCAA and summer league. And when hyped prospects show unexpected weaknesses, they have historically not been overcome in the long term. At this point it is safe to dismiss Cade’s AAU/HS priors for the bullish case. And there remains the bearish concern that the early disappointment may be predictive of future disappointment.
The funny thing is that none of the other prospects on the list showed major unexpected strength. Whereas Cade was supposed to be an average-ish shooter who has shot the lights out. But everything that was supposed to be a big strength has been such a weakness, that collectively he has fallen well short of expectations as a generational prospect.
If there is a bright side, it’s that since he improved his shooting, he is likely working on his game and can perhaps apply his work ethic toward other aspects of his game and buck the trend of early disappointment continuing over the long term. But he has shown limited craft in figuring out how to create against NCAA or SL defenses thus far, and may just not have the innate ability to create at a high level in the NBA.
Cade still has potential to be a highly useful NBA player. He fits a solid 3 + D mold, and his passing and creation ability still has some chance to be similar to Khris Middleton with good development. He could be a sort of Middleton/Klay hybrid that becomes a low-end all-star and is a super useful cog that fits into any NBA lineup.
But that’s not the type of player that you target at #1 overall. Klay went 11th, and Middleton went 39th. Granted, Middleton’s hype suffered from starting school super young and getting hurt as a junior. If he started school a year later and was a one and done, he may have been a late lottery pick. Cade Cunningham performed at a similar level to both of them as an NCAA freshman, only he went #1 overall because of his high school and AAU hype.
Then in summer league, he continued to perform at that level. It was only 3 games, but that’s now his two most recent performances in different settings where he has looked nothing like a #1 overall.
The saving grace has been his exceptional development as a shooter, which in tandem with his defensive versatility makes him a highly useful mold. Even if he is a late lottery talent like Klay and Middleton, perhaps in the modern NBA that is more of a mid-lottery value.
He needs quite a bit to go right to become an all-star, but not all that much to go right to become an average starter that fits in a wide range of NBA lineups. He only needs to not force a bunch of negative creation and become competent on defense.
If we say he is likely a solid starter in a favorable mold with some potential to be a low end all-star in a hybrid Middleton/Klay mold if things go well, and some risk of going full Wiggins on us if he forces too much negative creation– it seems fair to price that player as a mid-lottery guy in this year’s draft. It’s difficult to see the top 10 potential in Cade that prospects like Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, Josh Giddey, and Alperen Sengun offer. And if we are looking for a 3 + D wing, Franz Wagner is not on Cade’s level of a shooter, but could catch up in time. And Franz’s role playing IQ and defense is light years better than Cade on top of better dimensions.
Jalen Green is a more complex comparison, as he is seems more likely to hit his theoretical upside as a low end all-star SG like Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal, or Devin Booker…but that’s such a worse mold to build around, there’s a good case to be made that Cade nevertheless should be valued higher.
Cade is a strange and interesting case. He was supposed to be this star creator on the wing, and instead looks completely different as good but not elite 3 + D prospect. There may not be another prospect in history who badly disappointed in almost every regard outside of massively overperforming in one aspect like Cade has with shooting.
It is difficult to envision how somebody with such an odd arc will develop over the long term. But at this point, he has shown far too much weakness for his #1 recruiting hype and draft hype to be held onto. He still has all-star potential, but so do plenty of other players in a strong draft class. And if he has a path to being a top 10 NBA star, it is difficult to see it.