If Cade Cunningham hadn’t already caught your attention, Oklahoma State’s standout freshman certainly got it on Saturday. Current favorite at # 1 in the 2021 NBA draft, Cunningham lost 40 points and 11 rebounds against Oklahoma in a critical overtime win for the Cowboys. He then led the OSU to a win against their rival in the state two days later. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound Cunningham can seemingly play anywhere on the floor, but it’s his potential as a senior guardian and facilitator that makes NBA scouts salivate. Before he got into the league, we asked the expert group at ESPN.com to discuss which of the past stars the Wooden Award finalist brings to mind the most.
Which past college basketball player does Cade Cunningham remind you of most and why?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Well, at last week’s round table, Cunningham was my pick to be this season’s Kemba Walker – and that was before his 40-point run. I think he might still be when it comes to how he can carry the cowboys and how he finds ways to play late in games.
Let me throw a wild card at you, however: a bigger Deron Williams. Before you close this window right away, it’s not incredible. Both use their power to hold their own through defenders and land on the road, and both always play under control – in transition and in a pick-and-roll or half-field environment – and are rarely accelerated. Williams was more of a volume 3 point shooter than Cunningham, but like Cunningham, he preferred to play the rebound and get on the trail before dealing alone or finding teammates. Both also have excellent passing skills and consistently improve teammates. Both guys are the primary playmakers in a very good perimeter group filled with annoying defenders and skilled shooters. There may not be a Dee Brown in Stillwater this season, but I still go with the great Deron Williams as a comp for Cade.
Cade Cunningham is a mega talent and his (probably lonely) college season has shown that he is a winner. Sarah Phipps / The Oklahoman via USA TODAY NETWORK
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: I’m old enough to remember when Magic Johnson was considered too big to be an NBA point guard and too slow to succeed in a transitional offense. The result of this speculation? “Showtime” and five NBA championships. You see, nobody says Cade Cunningham is the next Magic Johnson, but his profound influence on a game is undeniable. What if the state of Oklahoma needed him to play in the center like Magic? Check. Is it almost shifting to a mistake? Check. Is he still the main threat to what Magic called “Time of Winning”? Check. Cade may not be magic, but at least he’s Ben Simmons with a jump shot.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: In any case, I refuse to be intimidated or surpassed by all these deep historical references and all these archival muscles that Lunardi and Borzello bend over. I will go back even further in time! Let’s see Jo Jo White. Dick McGuire. Wait, I got it, Phog Allen, and I mean Allen when he played for Coach Naismith.
Oklahoma state freshman security guard Cade Cunningham breaks his mindset during most of his clutch shots.
Or maybe the recent past is really the way to go. I will take Greivis Vasquez. Back in 2010 when Vasquez was a senior in Maryland, seeing a 6-foot-6 man with the ball in his hands was a little rare. The Terrapins ran their offensive through Vasquez, and like Cunningham he was a playmaker who tried to get to the edge and / or deal first and only consider a 3 after that or when he was wide open. Like Cunningham, Vasquez had the quiet mastery with the ball that every coach wants to see in their main creator. The only place this competition fails is with Cunningham helping much more on the defensive.
If I really tried to tick every box down the line, I’d have to ignore the “Players of the Past” part of the question and look at Ayo Dosunmu. Cunningham is younger and taller than any of the above, of course, and so the NBA is rightly keen to get him drafted as soon as possible.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I always love these questions. I was a Big Ten kid. And I remember how unstoppable Jim Jackson was in the state of Ohio during the 1991-92 season. Like Cunningham, he was a threat everywhere. He made 40% of his 3-pointers at an average of 22.4 ppg. He was a huge 6-6 guard fast enough to split a pair of defenders, fly over the edge, or make an impact from the edge. He also had an average of 4.0 APG. He also shared Cunningham’s reliability on the free throw line (81% success rate).
Jackson’s squad won 26 games before losing to Michigan in a memorable elite eight game. He was a physically impressive, versatile goal threat. He was also a defensive standout (1.7 steals per game, runner-up in the Big Ten in the 1991/92 season). You’re going through this list of All-Americans for the past 40 or 50 years and you won’t find anyone like Cunningham. But I think Jackson could have been a great point guard in today’s college game. Thank you for giving me a reason to check out the Big Ten basketball highlights of the early 90s – never forget Rashard Griffith! – for the last half hour.