Cade Cunningham was a 6-foot-5 freshman at Arlington's James Bowie High School playing varsity with nationally ranked player Kyler Edwards. He had broad shoulders, long arms, big hands and looked much older than 14.
“I honestly thought he was a senior,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton told Yahoo Sports. “After practice Coach [Allen] Gratts [Bowie varsity head coach] informed me that he was a freshman and that totally changed everything about how I saw him that day. I offered him on the spot.”
At the time, Boynton was an assistant coach under Brad Underwood at Oklahoma State. When Underwood questioned who this freshman was they had offered, Boynton simply replied, “Just trust me on this one. He’s the real deal.”
Boynton was consistently in the gym watching and recruiting Cunningham after that. He saw early signs of what type of player Cunningham could be.
“Going into my ninth-grade year, I just really started to lock in on basketball and I started studying more, in terms of the mindset, of the top guys and how they approached situations and things like that,” Cunningham said during a pre-draft news conference.
At 14 years old, he was making tough shots and wasn’t surprised by it, like he knew what he was doing. He was grabbing rebounds and making outlet passes up the court without dribbling. He was coming off a ball screen and making a pass with his left hand.
“The more I watched him play, the more I knew he was going to be something special,” Boynton said.
Boynton even took a seven-hour red eye flight from Hawaii, where Oklahoma State was playing in the Maui Invitational, to see Cunningham and Edwards play in a 10 a.m. game in Dallas.
“There were only 12 people in the gym, and I was definitely the only coach there,” Boynton remembered.
Boynton had nearly two years of recruiting Cunningham without any other school getting involved.
For his junior year, Cunningham decided to transfer to powerhouse Montverde Academy in Florida and joined teammates Moses Moody, Day’Ron Sharpe and Scottie Barnes — all projected first-round draft picks this year. Even then, he still only had a handful of offers from Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU and Florida.
It was at that time he decided to write down a list of goals for his high school career. The list included:
Undefeated high school season
Leading scorer in the EYBL
Win a gold medal for Team USA
No. 1 player in the country
“Cade is an extremely hard worker,” trainer Ashton Bennings told Yahoo Sports. “When he transferred to Montverde, he came back with a completely different mindset. It was a pro-level mindset and he was the one waking me up telling me, ‘Yo, let’s get in the gym.’ It’s crazy how his mindset changed almost overnight, but he’s been the same ever since.”
Bennings, Cunningham's cousin, has been training him since fifth grade when a broad-shouldered, long-armed kid used to tag along with his older brother, Cannen, to workouts. He started doing drills on the sideline but slowly inserted himself into workouts. All throughout middle school, it was Bennings calling Cunningham to come work out and get in the gym.
“There were times when he was young, he didn’t want to get out of bed or get in the gym, but I would make him do it anyway,” Bennings said with a laugh.
The summer between Cunningham’s junior and senior years, Bennings and Cunningham slowly started to cross goals off the list. Cunningham’s recruitment started to take off with Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Virginia and Michigan entering the mix.
“People would start saying, ‘He can’t shoot,’ so that summer we would just be in the gym and work on strictly shooting. Did that, marked that off,” Bennings added. “The next thing was, ‘He can’t create off the dribble,’ so we would get in the gym and work on that and cross that off. And then it’s, ‘Oh, he’s not a scorer.’ So then we go to the EYBL and he’s the leading scorer in one of the most talented groups of scorers to come through the EYBL.”
The accolades on Cunningham’s list slowly got crossed off as his senior year started. He help lead USA Basketball to the gold medal at the 2019 FIBA U19 where he averaged 11.7 points and 5.7 assists per game. Once the high school season started, he dominated every game.
Not only did Montverde go undefeated, but they also beat opponents by an average of 35 points. It might be the most talented team in high school basketball history. He was named a McDonald’s All-American and dethroned Jalen Green and Evan Mobley to take the No. 1 ranking in his high school class.
“He is a relentless worker and has high expectations for himself,” Bennings said. “It’s been crazy to see him put these goals on paper, put the work in and then see all the hard work pay off.”
Nothing changed when he got to Oklahoma State. Before the season started, Cunningham sat down with the coaching staff and wrote down a list of goals:
Win Big 12 Freshman of the Year
Win Big 12 Player of the Year
Sweep the Bedlam Series (rivalry game against Oklahoma)
Make the NCAA tournament
Win an NCAA tournament game
Shoot 40% from the 3-point line
“Everyone knew he was a great passer and has great size and can rebound. But people didn’t know how well he could shoot it or if he could take over games offensively as a scorer,” Boynton said. “Those were two things that we were very intentional about this year. He said he needed something tangible to work towards, so he set the goal at 40%. He wanted to shoot 40% from 3-point range.”
Cunningham would stay late after practice or get in the gym early to get extra shots with his brother Cannen, who was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State this past season.
“It’s so rare for a guy his age to understand how to be intentional. That’s not something you see from a player that’s 19,” Boynton added.
The 6-8 point guard finished the season shooting 40% from the 3-point line and 44% from the field. He averaged 20 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, leading Oklahoma State to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. Oklahoma State swept the Bedlam Series with both games going into overtime. Cunningham had 40 points and 11 rebounds in the first game.
He became the fourth freshman in Big 12 history to win Player of the Year and was the unanimous choice for Freshman of the Year.
There was only one goal that was set between March and Thursday night: Be the first pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
Cunningham worked out in Los Angeles and Miami with Bennings and Cannen throughout the pre-draft process.
“It’s been a lot of fun to lock in and work out with my brother and my cousin [Bennings] this whole time,” Cunningham said this week. “Having this time to focus on what I wanted to add to my game and fine-tune things, it’s the only time to get better and build confidence for the season.”
“We worked a lot on his ball-handling and reads off the pick-and-roll leading up to the draft,” Bennings said of the pre-draft workouts.
Cunningham is favored to hear his name called first Thursday evening (-5000 at BetMGM). He’s come a long way from receiving only one offer as a freshman in high school. Boynton and Bennings have been there to watch him grow as a player and become first, the best player in high school basketball and now, the potential first pick in the NBA draft.
“I think he’s going to be one of the best players to ever play the game,” Boynton said.
After Thursday night, the list of goals will continue.
Win Rookie of the Year
Get into the playoffs or the play-in game
Help his head coach win Coach of the Year
As far as long-term goals for his NBA career?
“Eventually, I want to be the best to ever play my position," Cunningham said.
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