For the college basketball die-hards who paid attention during the season, the news that the Pistons got the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft didn’t come with too much intrigue about what they should do with it.
Cade Cunningham has been the presumptive No. 1 pick for most of the season and he showed that through his one year at Oklahoma State. He opted against going to college powerhouse Kentucky and created his own niche with the Cowboys.
From the analysts who saw Cunningham play to a local college coach who played against him, the consensus is clear: Cunningham is an exceptional talent who deserves to be the No. 1 pick in the July 29 draft.
“He’s the best player. He’s got size and length. He’s a good athlete and he’s not going to LeBron you to death with his athleticism; he’s got tremendous skill and feel,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told The Detroit News. “He’s an excellent shooter; he can get his own (shot) and he can post up. He’s got a terrific handle and he’s a ridiculously good passer — and he defends on a high level and also rebounds.
“There’s really nothing he doesn’t do well. I’ve been impressed from the first time I saw him, and his maturity level is really high, but he winds up making a lot of next-level plays as far as his basketball IQ is concerned. He operates on a level at his age that very few do.”
That’s hefty praise that’s worthy of a No. 1 pick in a good year, and even with three other players at the top of the draft — Evan Mobley, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs — who likely will draw some attention from the Pistons, Cunningham is the prize of the draft.
At 6-foot-8, he has the versatility and basketball skill set that has similarities to another Pistons icon, Grant Hill, whom they selected with the No. 3 pick in the 1994 draft.
“I think this is probably too much maybe, but he reminds me Grant Hill somewhat. He’s long, he’s athletic and he can do a lot of different things. He can score, he’s pretty tough and I talked to guys there all year long and they talked about how good of a teammate he is,” ESPN analyst Dan Dakich told The News. “I don’t know that he’s a LeBron or if he’s all that, but I think he’s a damn good all-around player.
“In my mind with what I saw, unless you’re really getting to know Evan Mobley and you know what he’s about and you bet on him for a year or two. I don’t think he’s going to be Anthony Davis or that kind of thing. I think Cunningham is the obvious choice.”
There are similarities between Hill and Cunningham, but with everything that Hill accomplished in his NBA career, there’s something to like about what Cunningham is at the age of 19.
“He’s not as good as Grant Hill, but Grant Hill is a Hall of Fame player. Grant’s first seven years in the league, only about five or six players in the game’s history could match the numbers he put up,” Bilas said. “The only thing that stopped him from being Michael Jordan was the injuries, but there are some similarities as far as size.
“They’re both 6-8 and they’re both essentially point guards and ball-handlers, but Grant was way more explosive. That’s the big difference is his explosiveness, and Cade does not match that; from every other aspect, he’s a better shooter than Grant was coming out of college.”
Golden vs. Grizzlies
Oakland men’s basketball coach Greg Kampe took his team to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State in early December and got a first-hand look at Cunningham, who made two 3-pointers late to help seal the 84-71 victory.
The first thing Kampe noticed about Cunningham was he was a physical specimen, at 6-8 and a chiseled 220 pounds. Asked what else stood out, Kampe drew a blank — because he was so mesmerized by the physicality.
“I was just in awe,” Kampe said. “I said to Smitty (assistant coach Jeff Smith) when he came out for warmups, ‘Oh (expletive), no wonder they’re saying all this about him. Look at the size of him.’
“Somebody asked me on the radio months ago, is he the No. 1 pick in the draft, and I said there’s no doubt once you see him live. His physical size and what he can grow into in the next few years — look at how much bigger LeBron (James) is than he was — this kid could be as big as a guy like LeBron in five, six years.”
In the win over Oakland, Cunningham didn’t put up amazing numbers: 18 points with eight assists, two steals, four assists and a block. He struggled with Oakland’s zone early.
Asked for a player comparison, only one came to mind for Kampe.
And that was Earvin “Magic” Johnson, at least physically.
“Now, he isn’t the flair and all that of Magic Johnson, but he shoots better than when Magic and he were the same age, and you talk about a physical presence at the point guard,” Kampe said. “I think physically, he will have a presence of a Magic Johnson with the ball in his hands.
“He could transform the Pistons’ program into something great. There’s no question that the Pistons are gonna get a transformational player.”