Cade Cunningham is the clear-cut top prospect of the 2021 NBA Draft

NBA Draft, NBA Draft Scouting Reports

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All due respect to Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs, but the skill and versatility of Cade Cunningham makes him the best NBA Draft prospect in this class.

Cade Cunningham is entirely as good as the buzz surrounding him. Let’s clarify that from the jump. Guys such as Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs have dazzled to start their collegiate careers and are tremendous prospects in their own right, but neither approaches Cunningham. He is the man in this class, averaging 18.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists (3.3 turnovers) and 1.3 steals per game on 54.3 percent true shooting this season.

A 6-foot-8 primary initiator with a vast toolkit of three-level scoring moves, manipulative passing and defensive versatility, Cunningham follows Luka Doncic as the next great jumbo ball-handler. The advantage many bigger initiators tout over their contemporaries offensively is diversity of usage, which applies to Cunningham, particularly when juxtaposed with Mobley and Suggs.

Mobley is a 7-foot center who will largely operate as a roller/popper, DHO trigger man, interior passer and face-up scorer. He cannot spam pick-and-rolls as a handler. Suggs is a 6-foot-4 guard who will thrive in ball screens, shooting off the dribble, attacking off the catch and spotting up. While he’s a very good slasher, his size and lack of quick leaping in tight spaces make it hard to scheme him into playmaking/scoring opportunities on the interior.

What makes Cade Cunningham such a special NBA Draft prospect?

Cunningham, meanwhile, merges aspects from both Mobley and Suggs’ archetypes. He’s a brilliant pick-and-roll creator (87th percentile in efficiency this year) and flashes tantalizing off-the-bounce scoring. Blending strength, touch, footwork and balance with his 6-foot-8 frame and 7-foot-1 wingspan, he enjoys the skill and physical intersection to also operate on the block or from the mid-post/foul line extended.

The result, then, is a prospect who can excel at both priming others for easier scoring chances and be deployed into those advantageous situations as well because of his size. This may be an elementary concept but, generally, it’s easier to excel near the rim when you’re bigger and on the perimeter when you’re smaller. Cunningham is good enough to carry significant usage in both contexts and that simplifies his team’s offense. There aren’t likely to be many defenders who are mobile, long and strong enough to force him into either primarily functioning from the interior or the perimeter, whereas Mobley and Suggs don’t wield that type of offensive duality.

The ideal team contexts for Mobley and Suggs are more challenging to construct than it is for Cunningham, too. Spot-up shooters and a lob threat to occupy defenders would amplify his offensive arsenal. A secondary handler with scoring juice is welcomed, albeit not critical because he should be good enough to warrant a hefty on-ball gig. These feel more easily attainable than the checklist for Suggs and Mobley.

Suggs requires a creative, motion-based offense that generates advantages and space for him. Gonzaga runs a modern offense (most colleges do not) that offers these qualities and the complementary talent to mitigate his ball control, handle and finishing in traffic concerns.

Nearly 37 percent of his offense has come in transition so far this year, an unsustainable rate for any high-usage NBA player. For reference, among 256 players with 50-plus transition possessions last season, Josh Hart ranked first in frequency at 32.3 percent. Suggs has a chance to become a primary ball-handler at the next level, but leaning on him for an elite creation burden — 28ish percent usage, per se — might overextend him.

Unlike Suggs, Mobley is handcuffed by his current situation at USC, with the Trojans often stationing a non-shooting big next to him and calling post-ups and pick-and-rolls simultaneously, which greatly bogs down spacing. He’s dominant enough to stake his claim as a top-two prospect in spite of these factors, though he’ll likely need a sweet-shooting front-court partner also capable of handling brawnier assignments to ensure he’s not habitually exposed by starting centers inside — unless he experiences major strength gains.

A threatening ball-handler to set him up in pick-and-rolls and be the No. 1 scoring option is also part of the equation. At 215 pounds, with a relatively high center of gravity, his lack of strength will limit his scoring against bulky 5s and bleed into his passing aptitude, given fewer on-ball creation chances because of limits as a scorer.

Defensively, Suggs is a very good on-ball defender, but is maximized in a free safety role, where his instincts and reaction time spurs chaos as a gambler in the passing lanes. Those risks often land in his favor, but the correct personnel and scheme are paramount. Enabling his defensive playmaking necessitates heady team defenders and an interior anchor around him.

Fashioning a perimeter defense ideology around Cunningham, a stout on-ball defender, assuming the opposing top option each night is unwise. But his elite off-ball positioning and secondary rim protection differentiate him from Suggs, who relies somewhat notably on his risk-taking nature rather than discipline and expected responsibilities, a la Cunningham, to craft significant impact.

If all of that tracks, the nitty gritty of Cunningham’s skill set provides evidence for this drawn-out hypothesis. As a lead ball-handler and shot creator, he dices up defenses with his slashing prowess and budding pull-up shooting. His change of speeds, weaponized handle, strength, footwork and balance empower him downhill. He is poised and never hurried. Every cliche applies to him. Pick your favorite.

While he doesn’t have the burst to torch guys off the dribble, he consistently reaches his spots because of his frame and strength combo. He uses footwork to set up drives and owns stellar ankle flexibility, which helps him generate power inside and mix up his stride length. Silky floater touch aids him and helps compensate for burst deficiencies because he’s going to get into the paint with regularity, even if he can’t reach all the way to the rim. It’s incredibly difficult to contain someone of his size who has the strength and body control to dislodge you without committing offensive fouls and creates the necessary advantages or openings using his handle and varied pace.

Cunningham’s strength and touch are exquisite, and illuminated with still shots from some of the above baskets:

A deft ambidextrous finisher, he’s in the 85th percentile around the basket this season, though his 25.7percent rim frequency is a bit lower than preferable (30 percent or so). His pedestrian horizontal explosion will pose hurdles occasionally in the NBA and already has at times this year. But because of his strength, size and handle combo, I don’t think it will be a meaningful issue and the improvements Cunningham has displayed as a shooter in recent years suggest massive potency in that realm, especially for a 6-foot-8 wing.

Through nine games, he’s shooting 36.4 percent (12-of-33) from deep and 80.8 percent (42-of-52) at the line. In 18 EYBL games on the 2019 circuit, he shot 35 percent (14-of-40) from deep and 73.7 percent (101-of-137) at the line. The latter mark occurred before he streamlined his mechanics, though uncovering stats from his senior season at Montverde is a labyrinth.

I have zero concerns about his spot-up shooting. Among his ability to attack closeouts, pick apart scattered defenses as a passer and spot-up shooting, he’s going to be a rather useful off-ball player. Some (much?) of his offensive ceiling as a primary initiator hinges on the level he reaches as a pull-up shooter. Although I’m skeptical he ascends to the tier of guys such as Jayson Tatum or Paul George — partly because he projects as a better driver and interior scorer than those two — Cunningham should invoke fear in defenses with his off-the-bounce chops, given the space, creation and tough shot-making flashes he’s shown thus far.

Dudes at 6-foot-8 and18 or 19 years old, with his touch and free-throw history, who convert looks like this have a big-time shooting ceiling. He’s a very good shooting prospect and it’s well time that gets prominently priced into his prospect evaluation.

The main question surrounding his shooting is the volume. He’s never been a high-volume guy from deep — .254 3-point rate this year and .150 in EYBL, for instance — but that’s predominantly because he’s comfortably been able to achieve success as a playmaker or slasher. His intelligence and feel are key to his adaptability and if his middling burst restricts him as a driver in the NBA, I’m quite confident he’ll adjust. That is the mark of great players and Cunningham is a great player, deriving value from skill, physical tools and basketball IQ.

Aside from the mid-post scoring, he’s also adept working in the post. He has a refined a strength-based low-block game, which prevents opponents from pinning him with smaller assignments in a way they could against someone like Ben Simmons, who’s yet to develop a bullying and skilled back-to-the-basket game. Cunningham’s interior touch and physical disposition distinguish him from the Sixers’ All-NBA guard and incorporate another layer into his versatile offense.

He brandishes a lefty and righty hook, is quite precise in using footwork to frequent his spots and avoids tunnel vision, balancing scoring and passing duties down low. Oklahoma State’s lack of shooting — non-Cunningham players are converting 30.7 percent of their long balls — discourages him from spraying skip passes and kick-outs from the post (and in general), but he’s a legit presence on the block, a place from which he should be featured on occasion in the NBA.

His is ridiculously strong, especially for a 19-year-old, and carves out space with ease. He understands how to leverage this strength and that advantage should only expand as his frame fills out, even while accounting for the increased competition level moving forward. His passing shines, too, whirling skip passes from the block or threading interior feeds when the defense keys on him.

Cunningham’s underwhelming ~1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is not a product of tunnel vision, poor processing speed or spotty decision-making. He sees practically every pass available, but downshifting from stellar talent around him that he enjoyed with Montverde and Texas Titans has been an adjustment. My view is that he calculates the benefits of himself forcing a shot versus snapping a pass to a poor shooter, who may not even launch, and usually decides calling his own number is the shrewd play.

Perhaps, this is interpreted as overly rosy framing and confirmation bias, given the way I’ve assessed his pre-collegiate passing, but I’m also not going to let eight games with lackluster ancillary players sway me. Cunningham is a very, very good passer. He busts out eye movement and ball placement trickery to shift defenders around the court and manufacture shooting/passing windows, whirls ambidextrous live dribble feeds, hits guys precisely in the shooting pocket, times reads punctually, seamlessly transitions from dribble to pass, and does all of this wherever it’s needed across the floor.

His intersection of finishing, floater touch and pull-up shooting make him a three-level scorer. With his size, strength and driving acumen, he can consistently collapse defenses to generate open 3s or layups. Scoring gravity and playmkaing  will render him to be one of the league’s best offensive engine, bending defenses and enacting advantages to a level most of his NBA ppers cannot.

Assist totals this year cannot and will not dictate the narrative around his passing. He is too good in ball-screens and transition, attacking off the catch and creating from the post. His processing speed, recognition to diagnose reads, ingenuity and capacity for executing passes from an array of angles are rare for a lead initiator.

*The video is long, but well worth the time to fully grasp how good and versatile he is as a passer and important to understand why his assist numbers this season are misleading.*

If it sounds like Cunningham is a flawless prospect, the hang-up arises in the specifics. He hails from the same wing-sized initiator archetype as Doncic, but he is simply not as good as Doncic. The differentiators are in the degrees of goodness.

As a prospect, Doncic was a more advanced passer, scorer and finisher, which coalesce into sizable edges around the margins. They excel and win through similar avenues offensively, Doncic just did so at a higher level. Broadly, think about the gap between peak Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, point guards with booming range and an elite pull-up game. Curry played the role better, but they share many attributes.

While Doncic holds a wide enough gap offensively to be a grander overall prospect, Cunningham’s defense is significantly better. He is a phenomenal wing defender, both on and off the ball — the best defensive prospect slated to go first since Ben Simmons in 2016. On the ball, I feel confident projecting him as a 2.5-4.5 positional defender, where his strength, mobility and length power him.

He’s tremendous at mirroring assignments to stonewall driving angles and maintains balance after absorbing contact, often bumping guys out of control or negating attacks all together. These on-ball instances also occur on closeouts. They feel like his signature defensive play, routinely closing out to deter jumpers and anticipating driving lanes to deter slashing off the catch. It’s something he’s done quite a few times this year, a highly impressive play at 19 years old. Many young guys struggle with disciplined and effective closeouts, and Cunningham’s excellence here partially conveys his physical tools/intelligence package on that end.

The closeouts and on-ball defense are merely the beginning of his defensive excellence. Off the ball, he marries smarts and awareness with all the aforementioned physical traits. He’s almost always in pristine position to deter passes, understands how to play between two guys on the weak-side and dissuade passes to either shooter. He offers secondary rim protection (3.0 percent block rate), tags rollers/cutters, can intermittently assume the big man duties in pick-and-rolls, boxes out when shots go up and is an imposing defender at the nail, particularly on stunts to generate steals (2.1 percent steal rate) or curb penetration.

Timing and positioning are understated components of effective defense. Shutting off a driving lane or passing window is difficult to spot in real time. Doing so is subtle and tends to result in stalled possessions chalked up to poor decision-making offensively. Cunningham is the sort of defender who will yield such developments, quietly brilliant in his approach and understanding.

While not the proactive chaos agent of Suggs or domineering, wide-ranging rim protector of Mobley, Cunningham showcases his size and mobility by forging an impact on the perimeter and interior. He provides stylistic diversity defensively, empowering his team to deploy him as it wishes.

He can cheat off an inept offensive player and lurk to provide necessary help responsibilities with the freedom to gamble a bit for takeaways. He can defend an accomplished ball-handler, leverage his size to Ice ball-screens — something he’s quite experienced at — and frustrate many assignments, though the twitchiest of creators will win against him. Or, he can just fill the gaps, big, smart and fluid enough to stymie actions or passes with his disciplined positioning. The primary allure of his defense is the way he can mold and adapt to any scheme. He is not deficient anywhere, really.

Switch-all coverage works, with most match-ups in his wheelhouse. Drop coverage suffices because he tags rollers and properly zones up between weak-side shooters. Aggressive ball-denial philosophies, whether he’s covering for any back-cuts or performing the denials, are well within his domain. Risk-taking approaches that emphasize steals and blocks are certainly viable. Cunningham will never be the bedrock of a defense, but he is assuredly capable of high-level impact (borderline All-Defensive Team, I’d wager) as a versatile wing complement to any interior anchor.

On both sides of the ball, there are just so many avenues for him to significantly contribute in crucial facets. He does not present team-building barriers in the ways Suggs or Mobley do. Maximizing his game means surrounding him with guys who are more easily attainable than those who Suggs and Mobley demand.

Overrating an archetype can be a pitfall of scouting. But he’s also better at basketball than anyone else in this class, while playing the sport’s most valuable position, one that simplifies the rest of roster construction when you land it. He outpaces Suggs as a passer and half-court offensive driver, and does not need an ambitious philosophy to unleash him defensively. He will stress defenses with his scoring gravity in a way and catalyzes offense to lengths Mobley cannot.

There is no discussion for the No. 1 pick. The player, the archetype, the team-building vision, they all favor Cade Cunningham, the undisputed top prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft.

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