When recruiting high school basketball players, it’s hard for college coaches to know what they’re going to see on any given day. In some cases, they stumble upon a diamond in the rough while scouting a different player.
Mike Boynton was on a scouting trip at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas, and while watching Kyler Edwards, another young player caught his attention. As Boynton remembers, the second kid was about 6-foot-6 and Boynton guessed that he was a senior.
Boynton continued watching throughout the practice and he was impressed, and later, he asked the high school coach about the second player.
“I said, ‘Hey, tell me about this kid over here. He looks like an intriguing kid. Does he need help getting to a junior college?’” Boynton recalled to The Detroit News. “(The coach) said, ‘That kid’s just 14, and he’s a freshman.’”
Boynton said he left the gym that day convinced that he had just seen the best prospect in the country.
The young man’s name was Cade Cunningham — and Boynton, then an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, had just uncovered one of the country’s hidden basketball gems. At the time, Cunningham was an unknown prospect, but he wouldn’t be for much longer.
Cunningham continued to develop, and before his junior year he transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida, a basketball powerhouse that was ranked No. 1 in the country. He became the top-ranked player in a talented draft class, and after one season at Oklahoma State, Cunningham is poised to be the Pistons’ presumptive selection with the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
Cunningham, 19, is the most versatile and well-rounded player in the draft, and in the weeks since the Pistons won the draft lottery and landed the top pick, the talk has centered around whether they’d keep the pick and draft Cunningham or trade the pick and look to gather more assets for the future.
In the midst of a rebuild, Pistons general manager Troy Weaver seems to be weighing his options, but picking Cunningham looks to be the easy answer to help him in his restoration to the franchise’s heyday.
At 6-foot-8, Cunningham is drawing comparisons to another Pistons icon, Grant Hill, and for a team that went 20-52 last season, adding a versatile scorer and charismatic leader seems to be a no-brainer for the Pistons.
It looks to be a done deal for Cunningham, who only worked out for one team — last week with the Pistons.
“I wanted to meet with the team that had the No. 1 pick because I feel like I’m the No. 1 pick,” Cunningham said Friday.
In addition to his rare combination of size, scoring, ball-handling, passing and court awareness, Cunningham brings a maturity that made an impression on Boynton, who became the head coach at Oklahoma State in 2017. He points to Cunningham’s drive and motivation to not only be an elite NBA player, but to strive for more than that.
“His goal was never to be the best freshman or the best college player. He wants to be the best player to play. He wants at some point to be in the conversation as the best guy,” Boynton said.
“He won’t say that, but he’ll just do the work necessary. In private conversations, he’s driven to be one of the best to ever play the game — and I think that having a kid helped him focus in on, if he can do it, he wants to also do it because that’s going to help his family.”
Cunningham is mostly self-driven to achieve excellence, but there’s another motivator as well.
It’s his 2-year-old daughter, Riley. She’s one of the reasons that Cunningham chose to go to Oklahoma State, so he could be closer to his daughter and his strong family support system about four hours away in Texas.
With his additional parental responsibilities, Cunningham has had to maintain his discipline, and instead of having a typical college experience in his lone year at Oklahoma State, he maintained a focus on family and basketball.
“Having her as a teen father, that’s definitely going to make you grow up quickly. Having the dreams that I had, I knew that was going to be something that I would have to lock in on and put that ahead of anything else,” Cunningham said. “My daughter comes before basketball and comes before anything, so I’m making sure that she knows that I’m here for her and she’s the top priority.
“It made me lock in on the sport that I love because I know how much basketball can help to provide for my family, so I’m not going to let that go to waste, being careless and not putting in the time that I need to.”
Family is important to Cunningham, and he keeps his inner circle small, with his parents, his older brother, Cannen, and his cousin and trainer, Ashton Bennings, at the center.
His parents have contributed immensely in helping Cade raise Riley, and their example has been integral in his personal development and intense work ethic.
“He was young when he had a kid, but I will give all the credit to his parents. They did a wonderful job just showing him the grind. His dad wakes up at 4 a.m. every day, and he doesn’t miss a day,” Bennings said. “(His father) works Monday through Sunday, and Cade sees that, and the way his parents were able to provide and grind and wake up every morning just to go to work and provide food on the table like that was also a good thing for him as far as being a parent to Riley.
“It’s in him. It’s instilled in him, so he knows what he has to do just off seeing what his parents were doing.”
Continuing their work
On the court, Cunningham has the profile to be a transformative player for the Pistons. He can play three positions and he has a blend of wing skills with a point guard’s mentality in a bigger frame.
That’s where he fits immediately on the Pistons’ existing roster as a do-everything option.
“He’s really good at everything. He can be too unselfish, at times, but he can really pass the ball. He really has a high IQ and understanding of where guys are supposed to be to have success,” Boynton said. “He has a very good touch around the rim, he’s a good finisher and I think the thing he brings the most is just his will to win. He’s a winner, and he’s won everywhere he’s been, at every level.
“His teammates absolutely have loved him everywhere he’s played. You can track that from high school, AAU, college, his experience at USA Basketball, at Montverde. He is a team guy, first and foremost.”
Cunningham wasn’t regarded as a top-tier 3-point shooter, but he had significant work with Bennings to improve in that area, among others. He’s always been a gifted scorer, but he opened more eyes last season at Oklahoma State when he shot 40% from beyond the arc — which, combined with his other skills with the ball in his hands, makes him a tough player for defenses to adjust to.
It was just another box that he had to check to prepare himself to be the No. 1 pick.
“He knew the knock on him coming into college was that he wasn’t a guy who would take over the game from a scoring standpoint, and that maybe he wasn’t a consistent enough 3-point shooter to be a No. 1 guy,” Boynton said. “Literally, he made a plan and he said before the season started that he was going to shoot 40% from 3. I said that’s going to take some work. Every day, he’d make 500 3-pointers after practice, before he’d leave.”
The workouts became routine for Cunningham and Bennings, tinkering with small things at first, but then just trying to establish consistency in his shot and making it cleaner through repetition.
“His mechanics were there, but it was just more of just making sure he was shooting it the same way and just making sure it wasn’t flat,” Bennings said. “Mostly, it was just the reps and making a certain amount like 250, and then working your way up to 500 makes. It was just tons of reps and just making sure he was shooting all his shots the same way.”
Weaver and the Pistons’ front office appear to be doing their diligence in ensuring that Cunningham is the right pick. At this level, scouting is a lot different than finding a diamond in the rough in a high school gym.
Everything is right there in front of them to make a potential franchise-changing selection with Cunningham as the No. 1 pick.
It’s just that easy.