Everything is coming up Cade Cunningham in March thus far, with Oklahoma State avoiding a postseason ban during Cunningham’s freshman season thanks to an appeal from the university and the Cowboys storming to a four-seed in the NCAA tournament. That should be shortly followed by a No. 1 overall selection in the 2021 NBA Draft, and during some downtime this week after the Big 12 Tournament, Cunningham spoke with The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie to break down his game.
In the interview, Vecenie dug into the ways that Cunningham’s game is unique and special, from his ability to make his teammates better no matter the situation, his unselfishness in the pick and roll, and his stepback jumper. On the jump shot — which was no sure thing when Cunningham came out of Montverde Academy — Cunningham attributed his development to consistency in the gym and watching the greats.
“It definitely started with the groundwork. Getting my jump shot on balance and really making sure I knock down 1,000 jump shots. Then adding onto that, with a lot of defenses trying to find ways to get into my shot, I needed to find a comfortable way to get into that shot while making space.”
While searching for the patterns in the game to add his stepback jumper in, Cunningham began watching film of players like Luka Doncic and LeBron James who take and make that shot a high level. After he watched them, it started to come more naturally.
“I just kind of picked little things from each guy and see how they do it so effectively and then try to add it to my game and see how it translates to my body. I think it’s helped me a lot. Then after making a couple, your confidence is through the roof, so now I kind of feel like anytime I shoot the ball, it’s going to go in.”
As a high school recruit, Cunningham was compared to players like Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, who were not perimeter threats as we think of them in today’s NBA. But like any player with a high basketball IQ and strong work ethic, Cunningham added new elements to his game and has begun to master the most important shot for any ball-handler in the league right now, the pull-up jumper. Cunningham has shot 41.2 percent from three this season, with a majority of his attempts coming on unassisted shots. Mastering that stepback has opened up a whole new world for Cunningham, as he keeps defenders guessing because he’s tremendous going downhill, but now can create great shots off of the anticipation of drives with his stepback jumper.