Oklahoma State standout and potential top overall pick Cade Cunningham on Thursday declared for the 2021 NBA Draft in a press conference alongside his coach, Mike Boynton, officially starting the clock on the race for the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Cunningham led the Big 12 in scoring in his one-and-done freshman season and took home Big 12 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors, joining an exclusive group of Marcus Smart, Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant to earn both awards. He also led the Cowboys to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, their highest since they were a 2 seed in 2004 and 2005.
At least one scout last year told me that Cunningham was viewed in such high regard in the scouting community that he would have gone No. 1 overall in last year's draft had he been eligible, but the 2020 draft was not represented with a consensus franchise-caliber player at the top (though at CBS we viewed LaMelo Ball in that tier). However, because the 2021 draft is viewed so differently, Cunningham is one of several Tier 1 talents eligible for this year's draft.
So that begs the question: Will he be the No. 1 pick this year? Now remember, it's still relatively early in the process. But here's an attempt to answer that question along with a scouting report, his NBA fit, his long-term outlook and other players who could potentially edge him out in this race.
The scouting report
Franchise-caliber ball-handlers don't come around often -- much less those with 6-foot-8 frames like Cunningham carries (though teams think he's closer to 6-foot-7). The NBA puts a premium on prospects who project as jumbo playmakers like Cunningham. He's a three-level scorer who can handle a significant load as a shot creator with a good feel for the game and a better-than-expected jumper (making 40% from 3-point range at OSU). And on defense, he can switch multiple positions, carrying with him an innate sense for where to be on the court at all times.
Off the court, teams are enamored with him, too. He originally committed to Oklahoma State prior to the NCAA handing the program a postseason ban, but given the option to decommit, he followed through with his commitment. Further, there was never any sense that he wavered on his commitment during the season despite the fact that an injury could have derailed his standing as the frontrunner to go No. 1 overall.
As far as his style, he's Mr. Cool. Rarely forces things. Loves getting teammates involved. A throwback point guard who is most comfortable setting teammates up, so much so that his lack of assertiveness at times this season on a good (but not great) OSU team was perplexing. But he no doubt has always had a different level he could access, and when he did ....
He lets the game come to him. He was a notoriously slow starter, but equally notorious for finishing strong and coming up clutch in big moments.
Sure, he averaged more turnovers than assists per game on the season, but teams are relatively confident in evaluating him that 1. OSU's supporting cast with limited shooting did him no favors and 2. NBA spacing will be a godsend to his production.
The other No. 1 pick contenders
Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green are two very real contenders alongside Cunningham. Suggs is one of the driving forces behind No. 1 Gonzaga and its quest to go undefeated. A sparkplug combo guard, his competitive drive and ability to attack off the bounce has him up to No. 3 on the CBS Sports Big Board. Green, who spent the season with the G League Ignite team, is an athletic marvel who can create his own shot and capable of locking up defensively.
There's also Green's teammate, Jonathan Kuminga, who has entered the picture after reclassifying to this draft class. Kuminga had some bright moments with the G League Ignite team and his 6-foot-8 frame makes him a near-lock to be drafted in the top five.
Finally, there's USC big man Evan Mobley, the no-doubt-about-it favorite to be the first big man drafted in this class. Mobley is a 7-footer who led all major seven conference players in blocked shots en route to earning Pac-12 Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
This is an especially loaded draft at the top, and to no surprise, we're already seeing some NBA teams position themselves for a spot near the top of the lottery. So even if it's not for Cade -- though right now it appears to be for him -- the caliber of players inside the top five are such that teams can feel good about their ability to potentially change the trajectory of a team.
The team fit
The beauty of projecting Cunningham to the NBA is that, while he's clearly the A-level talent you take regardless of roster situation, he's also clearly the A-level talent who can fit into most roster situations. His vision and overall creation makes him an obvious fit to be a starting NBA point guard. But if he were to enter a situation with an established starter, Cunningham's size, scoring and passing abilities would give him a chance to make an immediate impact on the wing as well.
Cunningham's size and craft also translated elsewhere beyond the perimeter in college, too. Oklahoma State posted him up a fair amount and he used his wits to slither around in the paint to score. In the NBA against bigger and more skilled defenders this likely won't be a huge role of his, but he thrives in isolation, rating in the 87th percentile in such situations according to Synergy data, and knows better than most how to use his body and angles to get an edge on his defender when he's got room to gather steam and also when operating in tight spaces.
While clearly nothing is settled with respect to the draft and how the order will shake out later this summer, one scout from the Western Conference told CBS Sports that Cunningham right now, even with a crowded cadre of contenders, is the overwhelming favorite to go No. 1 overall.
"Don't make this complicated. Cade is special," said the scout. "His IQ, playmaking, vision, positional size, three-level scoring ability, efficiency, consistency and crafty creativity is what separates him. What he did with Oklahoma State is what I love most. He never shut it down and stayed committed to his teammates. He is what you want in a No. 1 pick."
Further, the scout added, Cunningham's selfless style of play is a draw teams have naturally gravitated towards. He never gets too high or too low and can be a fit for any NBA team because of the variety of things he's capable of doing at a high level.
"He carries himself and plays the right way," said the scout. "Players are going to love playing with this kid."
Cunningham is not the bouncy athlete like Green nor does he have the burst like Suggs, which may over time stunt his potential to develop into an MVP. Yet his craftiness, smarts and skill give him a solid floor as a very good NBA player with All-Star upside. He is the prototypical prospect of where the NBA is moving.
"Cade is a home run," said the scout. "I've seen all I've needed to see."