How Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham became a rare point guard: 'I visualize myself playing in college and the NBA as a point guard'
ARLINGTON, Texas — Three summers ago, there was no playbook. Only a single play.
Cade Cunningham and the pick and roll.
If his 16-and-under AAU basketball team was in half-court offense, Cunningham had to wait for a screen, then make a decision.
Over and over and over and over.
“Oh my God, I almost got tired of ball screens,” Cunningham said. “Like, can somebody else get the ball for ball screens?”
In perhaps the most important summer of Cunningham’s life, he was growing weary of a huge change. A natural forward whose recruiting rise stalled, Cunningham was moving to point guard.
His coach — his older brother, Cannen — had a meticulous plan to accompany his vision.
Successfully make the move to point guard, and Cade could be the best player in the country.
It wasn’t always fun. Cade sometimes butted heads with Cannen, believing the 6-foot-10 former SMU center was being over the top the more he benched Cade. But there was no other option. Cannen saw his past and wanted more for his brother.
“A little bit of it came from knowing that he can be better than me,” Cannen told The Oklahoman. “I always wanted to play on the perimeter. So, I didn’t want to see him go down the same path as me feeling like, ‘Yeah, I gotta be a big guy and run and duck my head under the rim every possession.’”
This is how you make a rare point guard, one with a 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame and the uncanny ability to make everyone around him better.
The path to developing the most-talked about Oklahoma State freshman in program history started in the Dallas-Fort Worth gyms of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League. With family leading the way, Cade became more than just a point guard.
He became the best point guard.
- Related to this story
- Article: How Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham found comfort in hometown debut: 'That allowed me to be me'
- Article: Oklahoma State basketball: Walk-on Dee Mitchell awarded scholarship during shift at Walmart
- Article: Why Dee Mitchell, Oklahoma State's newest scholarship basketball player, cherishes viral moment: 'It means the world'
- Video: OSU Basketball: Walk-on Dee Mitchell awarded scholarship
“A lot of people didn’t see why we were doing that,” Cade told The Oklahoman. “They just felt like it was another big guy trying to turn into a guard. We knew each other, we kept it within our circle and we trusted each other.
“I think that was the biggest thing. I had people around me that were good advisers for me and people that wanted the best for me.”
Cade watched his teammates stop, pick up the basketball and dribble again with no consequence.
They often used two hands to dribble. They ran with the basketball in their hands.
Even at 5 years old, this was anarchy on a YMCA basketball court for Cade. He wasn’t allowed to do that.
If he did, his coach would bench him.
Keith Cunningham, the coach, insisted that his son continuously dribble with one hand or else.
“We’re going to teach you right,” Keith told Cade.
Cade didn’t quite understand the reasoning. Why was he being treated differently?
“I always thought it was unfair,” Cade said, “but I didn’t know how much it would help me.”
He dribbled with one hand. He also made sure every kid on his team touched the basketball and got a chance to shoot.
“That was the early sign that this kid was a point guard,” Keith told The Oklahoman.
Keith was a football star, a quarterback from Arlington who was headed to Texas Tech when he suffered an arm injury moving furniture at his mom’s house. He played only two seasons.
Instead, he became the father of a sports-driven family, working long days as a switchboard mechanic and lead foreman at Siemens while coaching his three children.
“For as long as I can remember, he’s been waking up at 4 a.m. to go to work every day,” Cade said. “On holidays, he’s working. He’s always had this super work ethic and he’s worked for everything he has.
“I think just seeing that made me want to go out and go work out on my own.”
Keith thought he had a football player in the group with Cade. Cannen chose basketball over baseball. Kaylyn, their sister, played basketball, but her passion was outside sports.
Cade was a quarterback outside of basketball. But he still chose hoops over the Friday Night Lights entering Arlington Bowie High.
“Man, that round ball, he fell in love with that round ball,” Keith said. “It took him to another level.
“Like I told him, ‘Whatever you do, we’re going to support. If you want to play piano, we’re going to be there for you. Just give it your all.’
“And that’s what he does.”
Cade heard every negative word in the 2018 summer.
He should remain a forward. Moving to point guard was borderline loony. It would never work.
Most viewed Cade leaving his 17-and-under Texas Titans AAU team to play for his brother’s 16U Drive Nation team as a mistake. It looked like he was running from competition.
But in order to make the transition to point guard, Cade needed Cannen. He was family and he was committed to the change.
“It was something I could envision myself playing,” Cade said. “And I visualize myself playing in college and the NBA as a point guard. That’s what I work toward.”
Cade had started working on ballhandling skills as a sixth grader with his cousin and trainer Ashton Bennings, a former 6-foot small-college guard who trained Cannen and some NBA players at the same time.
Then bigger than most kids his age, Cade training as a guard raised eyebrows. But he displayed rare court vision and a deep understanding of the game. He was selfless, too.
By his sophomore year, Cade was starting to excel on the court. He just wasn’t getting the attention or ranking he felt he deserved. He didn’t want to be just a top-50 player or a top-10 talent — he wanted to be No. 1.
A plan was made. Cade would become a point guard. He would become the best player in Texas, then the best in the country.
But first, Cade had to change some minds.
“I don’t know why it was controversial, but it was,” Cannen said. “A lot of the basketball people in DFW kinda hesitated to embrace the fact that he was a point guard. Nobody wanted to throw those two words together next to his name. But basketball is moving more and more positionless.”
Cade eventually excelled that summer, even coming around to liking the pick and roll. Then, he left Texas for Montverde Academy in Florida, where he joined a program led by Kevin Boyle, one of the top basketball minds in the country who had coached Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid among other NBA and college stars.
Boyle embraced Cade as a point guard. Boyle pushed him and molded him.
In February 2019, the switch paid off. Against powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Tampa, Florida, Cade had 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds opposite Cole Anthony, the top-ranked senior point guard at the time.
“Cade absolutely dominated that game,” OSU coach Mike Boynton said. “That’s when people were like, ‘Oh, this transformation is real.’
“And he hasn’t looked back since.”
Boynton heard a single basketball bouncing inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
It was 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving. Boynton had wrapped up some cardio in OSU’s weight room when he noticed the sound.
Cade was working out alone, just more than 12 hours after his college debut.
Two days later — a few hours after OSU won its home opener against Texas Southern with his family in town — Cade had his cousin Bennings on the court for more work.
“Those are the little things that goes to show you why he’s going to be a good player, not only here but in the future,” Boynton said. “He’s so vested in winning and becoming the best.”
Cade didn’t choose a blue-blood program after he reached elite status. He chose the Cowboys, a program rebuilding with Cannen as an assistant and facing NCAA sanctions, where he could become transcendent.
Cade never won a state title at Arlington Bowie. He never won a national title at Montverde. Leading OSU is his next challenge before possibly being the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft this year.
“He’s always been on successful teams, but winning at the highest level I think is what’s next for him,” Cannen said. “Obviously, we’re continuously working to try to refine all his skills.
“I would say his No. 1 goal right now is to win.”
Cade has made a huge impact on the Cowboys. They’ve climbed to 3-3 in Big 12 play, upsetting top-25 teams Texas Tech and Kansas. OSU paused team activities Friday due to COVID-19, but a top-25 ranking is within reach.
Cade is averaging 17.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 steals. He’s becoming the ultimate teammate, playing multiple positions to make the team better.
He still makes mistakes, even in the pick and roll.
But now there is no arguing that the journey was worth it.
“I found a different love for not only the position but for the game, really, just being the head of the snake and making decisions for my team,” Cade said. “I knew that was something I had a passion for and I was going to work to be the best at it.”
Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.