If Cade Cunningham hadn’t already gotten your attention, the Oklahoma State freshman standout surely received it on Saturday. Cunningham, the current favorite to go No. 1 in the 2021 NBA draft, dropped 40 points and 11 rebounds on Oklahoma in a critical overtime win for the Cowboys, and he followed that performance by leading OSU to a sweep of its in-state rival two days later. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound Cunningham can seemingly play anywhere on the floor, but it’s his potential as a lead guard and facilitator that has NBA scouts salivating. Before he gets to the league, we asked ESPN.com’s panel of experts to talk about which stars of the past the Wooden Award finalist most evokes in their minds.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Well, in last week’s roundtable, Cunningham was my pick to be this season’s Kemba Walker — and that was before his 40-point effort. I think he could still be that in terms of how he can carry the Cowboys, and how he finds ways to make plays late in games.
Let me throw a wild card at you, though: a bigger Deron Williams. Before you close this window immediately, it’s not unbelievable. Both use their strength to power through defenders and finish in the lane, and both guys always play under control — in transition and in a pick-and-roll or half-court setting — and rarely get sped up. Williams was more of a volume 3-point shooter than Cunningham, but like Cunningham, he preferred to play off the bounce and get into the lane before finishing on his own or finding teammates. Both also have terrific passing ability and consistently make teammates better. Both guys are the primary playmaker in a very good perimeter group filled with pesky defenders and capable shooters. There might not be a Dee Brown in Stillwater this season, but I’m still going with big Deron Williams as my comp for Cade.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: I’m old enough to remember when Magic Johnson was considered too tall to be an NBA point guard and too slow to thrive in a transition offense. The result of that speculation? “Showtime” and five NBA championships. Understand, no one is saying Cade Cunningham is the next Magic Johnson, but his profound impact on a game is undeniable. If Oklahoma State needed him to play center like Magic once did? Check. Does he defer almost to a fault? Check. Is he still the biggest threat at what Magic called “winning time”? Double check. Cade might not be Magic, but he’s at least Ben Simmons with a jump shot.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I for one refuse to be intimidated or outdone by all of these deep historical references and all of this archival muscle flexing from Lunardi and Borzello. I’ll go even further back in time! Let’s see, Jo Jo White. Dick McGuire. Wait, I’ve got it, Phog Allen, and I mean Allen when he played for Coach Naismith.
Oklahoma State freshman guard Cade Cunningham breaks down his mindset during his most clutch shots.
Or perhaps the more recent past really is the way to go. I’ll take Greivis Vasquez. In 2010, when Vasquez was a senior at Maryland, it was still somewhat rare to see a 6-foot-6 guy with the ball in his hands. The Terrapins ran their offense through Vasquez, and, like Cunningham, he was a playmaker who looked to get to the rim and/or distribute first and consider a 3 only after that or when wide-open. Like Cunningham, Vasquez had the calm mastery with the ball that every coach wants to see in their primary creator. The one place where this comp fails is that Cunningham helps out to a much greater extent on the defensive glass.
If I were really trying to check every box across the board, I’d have to ignore the “player of the past” part of the question and look at Ayo Dosunmu. Cunningham is younger and taller than all of the above, of course, and thus the NBA is quite rightly keen to draft him 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 at Ohio State during the 1991-92 season. Like Cunningham, he was a threat everywhere. He made 40% of his 3-pointers while averaging 22.4 PPG. He was a huge, 6-6 guard who was quick enough to split a pair of defenders, fly above the rim or make an impact from the perimeter. He averaged 4.0 APG, too. He also shared Cunningham’s reliability at 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 imposing, versatile scoring threat. He was also a defensive standout (1.7 steals per game, second in the Big Ten in the 1991-92 season). You go through that list of All-Americans over the past 40 or 50 years and you won’t find anyone quite like Cunningham. But I think Jackson could have been a big point guard in today’s college game. Thanks for giving me a reason to watch early-1990s Big Ten basketball highlights — never forget Rashard Griffith! — for the past half hour.