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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | January 20, 2021

Cade Cunningham’s rare skills make good things happen all over the court

Mike Boynton talks star freshman Cade Cunningham, mindset entering 2020-21

Good luck trying to fit Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham neatly in a box. He's 6-8 and 220 pounds. He often plays point guard for the Cowboys, yet given his size, the advanced stats site kenpom.com lists him as a center. The site lists his statistical player comparisons as Duke's Jayson Tatum, Indiana's Romeo Langford, Stanford's KZ Okpala, Kansas's Andrew Wiggins and San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard. Not bad, huh?

The average NBA draft position for those five players was No. 13 overall, including a former No. 1 overall pick in Wiggins and a former No. 3 pick in Tatum.

Those are the comparisons you draw when you're the No. 1 option on offense for your team, but also the No. 1 creator; when you're a highly efficient 3-point shooter but also someone who gets to the free-throw line with regularity, then makes your free throws once you're there.

Here's a breakdown of what makes Cunningham the most talented freshman in the country and an All-America candidate.

Cade Cunningham's stats

The following stats are current through Jan. 18.

Points per game: 18.0
Rebounds per game: 6.2
Assists per game: 3.7
Field goal percentage: 46.0 percent
3-point percentage: 38.8 percent
Free throw percentage: 81.7 percent

Here are some advanced stats for Cunningham, courtesy of kenpom.com:

Offensive rating: 105.5
Usage rate: 27.1 percent
True shooting percentage: 57.0 percent
Assist rate: 21.6 percent
Block rate: 3.3 percent
Free throw rate: 37.3 percent

He's most efficient at the most efficient shots

The most efficient shots in basketball are shots at the rim (because of their proximity), 3-pointers (because of their value) and free throws (because no one is guarding the shooter and because they're shots that are practiced often), and those are the shots where Cunningham is at his best on offense.

Through Jan. 18, the freshman is shooting 65.6 percent at the rim, meaning on layups, dunks and tip-ins. He makes 38.8 percent of his threes and shoots 81.7 percent at the free-throw line. He's largely built for modern basketball, which emphasizes the very closest-range shots and ones from long-range.

On this possession against Kansas, Cunningham was harassed by two Jayhawks defenders. So he swung the ball to Avery Anderson, who passed the ball back for an immediate catch-and-shoot three that hit nothing but net, showing how dangerous Cunningham can be when playing off the ball.

If there's an area where Cunningham needs to improve as a shooter, it's on his 2-point jumpers, an area in which he's making just 29.4 percent of his attempts. Slightly less than a third of his attempts are 2-point shots that aren't at the rim, so that's what's holding back his offensive rating, which is only slightly above average at 105.5.

But the majority of the shots that the 6-8 guard attempts are ones wheres there's likely a high payoff, either at the rim or from behind the arc.

A frame that creates mismatches

As mentioned at the top, Cunningham often initiates Oklahoma State's offense, which is a rarity in college basketball for someone who's 6-8. It's understandable if a casual observer sees his listed height on a box score or roster and assumes that he's at the very least a forward, if not a small-ball center.

There are only two players in Oklahoma State's rotation who are taller than Cunningham and only one of them averages more than four minutes per game, so it's not unusual for the ball to be in the hands of the Cowboys' tallest player on the court. It certainly helps his nearly 39-percent 3-point percentage when he's 6-8 and when the defender who's guarding him is often not as tall.

Even when his defender can match him physically, Cunningham is able to create space, like on this long 2-point jumper after a quick crossover dribble against Kansas forward Tristan Enaruna, who's listed at 6-8 and 215 pounds.

Defensively, Cunningham can use his size to be a rim-protector, which is certainly uncommon for someone who spends a healthy share of his possessions at point guard. His block rate, which measures the percent of opponents' 2-point attempts that are blocked, is 3.3 percent, which is the third-best on the team. This means that if an opposing team attempts 33 2-point attempts in a game, Cunningham will block one of those shots, on average.

He's also able to use his height to his advantage to find passing lanes that few other players are capable of seeing, like this pass on Oklahoma State's first possession against Kansas, when he was briefly trapped by two defenders on the right wing, which led to a one-handed, cross-court pass to a wide-open Isaac Likekele in the opposite corner.

A few minutes later, when being cut off by Kansas center David McCormack and chased by reigning national defensive player of the year Marcus Garrett, Cunningham used his length to bounce a one-handed feed to a cutting Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe on a screen and roll.

Given Cunningham's stature, especially relative to his Oklahoma State teammates, he's going to be used as the screen-setter in screen-and-rolls, not just the ball-handler in those situations. On this possession against West Virginia, he was the second screener (out of three), as teammate Bryce Williams ran off the screens, around the perimeter. The first screener was the team's second-leading scorer, Likekele (12.1 ppg), then Cunningham was the second screener, and the player running off the screens, Williams, is a 37-percent 3-point shooter. That poses a difficult situation for opposing defenders, which have to decide whether Cunningham (or Likekele) are being used as decoys or if the set is action designed for them to ultimately take the shot.

Does he have a clutch gene?

In just his sixth college game, Cunningham hit a game-winning 3-pointer on the road against Wichita State, which propelled Oklahoma State to a 67-64 win. While he had a relatively quiet game by his standards — 10 points, six rebounds and three assists, compared to four turnovers — he was responsible for the game's deciding basket.

If there was any question about the 6-8 guard's 3-point shooting confidence or prowess, he now had a highlight-reel moment from deep that would be burned into the minds of opposing defenders.

Defensive rebounds turn into transition opportunities

At 6-8, Cunningham is Oklahoma State's second-best defensive rebounder. He grabs 15.7 percent of available defensive rebounds, or roughly one in seven shots that opponents miss when he's on the floor. Given his role as one of the Cowboys's primary initiators of their offense, he can then turn and run, starting the team's transition offense.

Oklahoma State's average offensive possession lasts 15.8 seconds, which ranks 41st nationally, so the Cowboys aren't shy about pushing the pace when they can.

Or if a teammate grabs a defensive rebound, he can quickly pass to Cunningham, who can charge down the floor with a head full of steam, as he did on this possession against West Virginia, where he pump-faked, then scored around West Virginia's Emmitt Matthews.

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