Top NBA draft picks tend to fall into a handful of categories. There are back-line big men who invite the happy thought of certain problems (interior defense, rebounding) taken care of for the next decade. There are will-o’-the-wisp guards who move in double time and see the game at half speed. There are players who seem destined to do everything that can be done on a basketball court, rightly (LeBron James) or wrongly (Ben Simmons).
Cade Cunningham has in many ways followed the red-carpet path rolled out by his predecessors. As a sixteen-year-old in Arlington, just three years ago, he was a top-25 recruit whose presence in a weeknight game would have college coaches traversing multiple state lines to be in attendance. By the time he finished his prep career in Montverde, Florida, at the helm of a private-school superteam, he’d distinguished himself as the cream of the class. Cunningham’s lone season at Oklahoma State, superlative as it was, mostly confirmed what everyone already knew. He led the Big 12 in scoring with more than twenty points per game and finished in the top 12 in rebounds and assists. He was named the conference’s player of the year, the national freshman of the year, and a first-team All-American. The last honorific—number-one pick—will likely arrive at the end of the month, courtesy of the Detroit Pistons.
But watch Cunningham play, as every NBA decision-maker has spent a good chunk of the last couple years doing, and you don’t see an above-the-rim acrobat or an anomaly of scale. Cunningham—a six-foot-eight point guard with a long stride and a tuft of breezy hair—is tall but not towering, quick but not a blur, strong but not immovably so. He can burrow into the lane and hoist three-pointers from far beyond the line, but his defining characteristic is a kind of athletic empathy, an understanding of how every action on a basketball court influences every other one. This quality, which manifests in drives that look like teleportation and passes that seem to float on magnetic tracks, is referred to by those who know him best as maturity, vision, or basketball IQ. “That’s his natural talent,” says Allen Gratts, who coached Cunningham at Arlington’s Bowie High School. “That’s something that was just given to him.”
Well, who gave it to him? Gratts may be right about the seed of Cunningham’s game being unteachable, but it was cultivated by a tight-knit group of kin and the next-closest thing in Arlington. Ashton Bennings, Cunningham’s cousin and longtime trainer, describes an intergenerational tutelage—the construction of a basketball worldview and the refining of the technique needed to carry it out. “The circle,” Bennings says, “we all knew The Plan.”
The Plan began, in some nascent form, in the summer of 1985, the day an assistant football coach from Texas Tech drove to Grand Prairie to pick up Keith Cunningham, who, sixteen years before he would become Cade’s father, numbered among the country’s top quarterback recruits. Before setting off to start his career with the Red Raiders, Keith dropped by his mother’s house to help rearrange some furniture. As he hoisted one hefty piece, he jostled a ceiling fan that fell and sliced his forearm, damaging tendons. Post-recovery, Keith’s spiral fluttered and his deep ball fell short. He left Tech after two seasons.
“What Cade was going through, coming out of high school, they were doing the same things for his pops,” Bennings says. “Everybody thought he was going to the NFL—they knew.” Instead, Keith played a couple years of semi-pro ball before settling into a career as a switchboard mechanic and, eventually, a foreman at Siemens. “[Keith] understood humility, how quickly things can change,” says Jarrett Howell, a family friend and former assistant coach at Bowie.
Still, Keith retained all but the arm of a quarterback: the requisite vision and sense of anticipation, the understanding of individual and team success as foundationally linked. Cade—younger brother to Cannen and Kaylyn, future college hoopers all—followed in his father’s footsteps, playing the position for grade school and junior high teams before transposing the skills onto the hardwood. “He credits his passing ability to playing quarterback, just training his vision,” Cannen says. “He really was—really is—good at galvanizing his troops.”
After junior high, having completed the “football eyebrow-raiser” station of budding Texas stardom—his undefeated seventh- and eighth-grade seasons hold a small perch in family lore—Cunningham dropped the sport to focus on basketball. He already stood a few inches over six feet and had no problems muscling his way to the basket, nurturing the other parts of his game, namely that gridiron-schooled passing, more out of familial ethos than competitive need. “He could have shot the ball every time down, and nobody would have been upset, but he went out of his way to get his teammates involved,” Howell says. “That translates—eventually people will have to want to play with you, and he clearly had that trait.”
Cunningham immediately made varsity at Bowie, just the second freshman in Gratts’s two-decade tenure to do so, and began a high school career that looked largely indistinguishable from that of any other NBA-bound prodigy. He topped twenty points as a matter of habit; what might have been tense end-of-game moments for lesser players were for him highlight-reel fodder. Howell remembers a game he coached against Cunningham—he’d moved on from his assistant role at Bowie to the top job at Lamar High—when Howell used his insider knowledge to devise a double-team trap aimed at suppressing Cunningham’s influence. For three-plus quarters, Lamar hung tight as Cunningham’s usually automatic game sputtered. “Then in the last minute and a half,” Howell says, “Cade’s like, ‘Forget it. I figured it out.’” Cunningham stationed himself where the double-team would take longest to arrive and, catching the ball, attacked without pause, against the approaching defender’s momentum. Cunningham glided to the rim on one possession and drew a foul on the next. He scored seven points in the final sixty seconds to eke out a comeback win.
Away from practices and games, Cunningham worked with loftier goals in mind. With Cannen, who completed his four-year career at SMU in 2015, Cade studied film of local (Dirk Nowitzki) and aspirational (LeBron) NBA favorites. With Bennings, he drilled the fundamentals of ballhandling and footwork on a near-daily basis. The regimen was “nothing that nobody can’t do,” Bennings says, but Cunningham executed it with the goal of perfection, not proficiency. Pickup games at local gyms—for most adolescent players, opportunities to build good cardio and bad habits—became focused rehearsals, chances for Cunningham to home in on aspects of his game besides scoring. Bennings set benchmarks unknown to the gawkers who gathered to watch the local star: ten assists or ten rebounds, buckets be damned. “People on the sideline would be like, ‘Why isn’t Cade shooting the ball?’” Bennings says. “And I’m just laughing.”
Cunningham’s junior season brought the next stage of The Plan. The family decided that Cade would transfer to national powerhouse Montverde Academy, where he’d play with and against other highly ranked prospects and where he’d move to point guard, rather than the wing position his height necessitated at Bowie. Surrounded by future McDonald’s All-Americans, Cunningham flashed the tools he developed with Bennings, setting the tempo and picking opponents apart with crosscourt assists. Games became more like recitals than competitions; his senior year, Cunningham led Montverde to an undefeated record. “What stood out was that, even though he was playing with all these other great players, he still looked like the best player,” says Eric Bossi, the basketball director for recruiting publication 247Sports.
Cunningham’s lone year in Stillwater doubled as a reunion; Cannen had taken a position as an assistant coach with the Cowboys in 2019. One of the great freshman seasons in recent college basketball history began with an Instagram post—part announcement, part affirmation. “Blood is always thicker than water,” Cade wrote. “Go Pokes.”
Over his last summer as a non-millionaire, Cunningham has held to old habits. As fans in Detroit and hope-against-hopers in Houston have photoshopped him into Pistons and Rockets colors and pundits have offered comparisons—the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Dončić, another basketball puppeteer, is a popular one—Cunningham has sweated in gyms with Bennings and named Cannen his manager. The trio has touched down in Los Angeles and Miami, hot spots for draft prep, but Arlington remains home base. There’s nothing special about the pre-NBA version of their workouts, Bennings says. “Just keeping him in shape, keeping the dribble tight.”
A worry sometimes shadows prospects like Cunningham, who owe their status as much to polish as to potential. Is he already as good as he’s going to be? Those in on The Plan scoff at the notion, pointing to a March Big 12 tournament game against Baylor as evidence. Baylor, weeks away from winning the national championship, had already beaten the Cowboys twice in the regular season, with the Bears’ vaunted backcourt defense giving Cunningham a more effective version of the problem Howell had once designed to stop him. The teams’ second matchup, a bruising affair that left Cunningham with a sprained ankle, particularly stung. “We had this feeling [after the second loss to Baylor] that Cade was going to find a way to get it done,” says Keiton Page, the Cowboys’ player development coach. “The way he was locked in, controlling the offense, talking in the huddle. You could just tell he was looking for the opportunity to get them again.”
When the opportunity arrived, Cunningham made good use of it, tallying 25 points, eight rebounds, and five assists in a 9-point Oklahoma State win. He set up shop on every sector of the floor, canning jumpers and bullying defenders on the block and slipping peekaboo passes through barely there alleys. He shared the court with several other first-round prospects, but the game, as ever, flowed through him. If he’d needed one, it might have been a résumé.