When the Oklahoma State men’s basketball program was slapped with a postseason ban for a bribery scandal involving a former assistant, coach Mike Boynton made a crucial decision: He picked up the phone and called the future face of his program, Cade Cunningham.
Cunningham was the highest-rated point guard of all time in 247Sports’ recruiting database and was already being projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Would he stick with the Cowboys without the promise of playing in the NCAA Tournament?
Within a month of Boynton’s call, Cunningham recommitted to the program,1 and on Sunday, with the school’s appeal of its postseason ban still unresolved, Oklahoma State earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys are roaring into the Big Dance with Cunningham — a newly minted All-American — playing like the best player in the country. “I don’t think it’s close,” Boynton said after Oklahoma State beat Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament.
Like Anthony Edwards at Georgia a season ago, Cunningham joined a ho-hum program rather than one of the established college basketball elite. Oklahoma State was a perennial contender in the 1990s and early 2000s under coaching legend Eddie Sutton, but since 2015, the school has made only one tournament appearance, losing in the first round.
After a 6-0 start to the 2020-21 season, the Cowboys dropped their first two conference games, with Cunningham shooting a combined 15-for-37 overall and 1-for-9 from beyond the arc. But the freshman phenom was determined to realize his team’s potential — “Manifestation is key, man,” he has put it — and he shifted into overdrive. As a result, Oklahoma State has six wins over ranked opponents in the past three weeks2 and trails only Illinois in the number of Quad 1 wins this season.
Behind a ridiculous stat line — 20.2 points per game, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 41.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc — Cunningham became the fourth freshman ever to earn Big 12 Conference Player of the Year honors. There isn’t much he can’t do, which is why there is a consensus that he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
At 6-foot-8, Cunningham runs point guard with the length of a wing. It’s not enough to say that he’s a combo guard; he’s proven capable of defending all five positions and grabbing rebounds like a forward. If a skill set were designed to mirror the priorities of the modern NBA — size, length, control, efficiency, positional dexterity — it would look like what Cunningham has in tow.
How unusual is Cunningham’s profile? According to BartTorvik.com, only a handful of high-major freshmen since the 2007-08 season who were at least 6-foot-8 have shot the 3-pointer so well on a reasonable diet of attempts:
|2020-21||Cade Cunningham||Oklahoma St.||6-8||8.5||41.2|
Over the final month of the season, Cunningham transformed into the consummate closer, routinely torching opponents during the waning moments of games. His performance has drawn comparisons to the fabled run Kemba Walker put together at UConn in 2011. In a 79-75 win over Oklahoma, he scored 12 of his 15 points in the final 10 minutes. In the Big 12 Championship against Texas, he hit six of the team’s final eight jumpers, including two 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds.
“Cade’s one of those guys where you can do everything well and he still gets a bucket,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, a man whose team has spent all season preventing buckets with little difficulty.
It’s all enough to wonder if Cunningham will do what former No. 1 draft picks like Edwards, DeAndre Ayton, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons couldn’t: Pace their respective teams to a deep tournament run. According to BartTorvik.com, the three teams with the most similar efficiency profiles to Oklahoma State reached at least the round of 32, with one — Florida State in 2018 — advancing to the Elite Eight.
Cunningham averages more points per game than all but two of the previous 10 No. 1 draft picks did in their single college years,3 and he has commanded the Cowboys offense in recent weeks to wins over a number of conference opponents poised to excel in the tournament. The Cowboys haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005, but Cunningham has already elevated the program to new heights. With an opportunity in Indy and his team playing its best basketball, Cunningham has the chance to make even more history before the professional ranks come calling.
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