NBA

2021 NBA Draft: Cade Cunningham may not be the next Luka Doncic, but their offensive similarities are striking

Draft comps have become a running joke in the NBA. Every 6-foot-8, wingspan hero who averaged five points in college is the next Kawhi Leonard. Every versatile, athletic big is a jump shot away from being Anthony Davis. Every sharpshooting point guard who likes to pull up from 30 feet is ludicrously compared to Steph Curry.

So when you hear that Cade Cunningham, the projected top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, has drawn comparisons to Luka Doncic since his high school days, your skepticism is beyond justified.

On the surface it makes sense. Cunningham’s listed measurements of 6-foot-8, 220 pounds are nearly identical to those of Doncic, who is 6-7, 230. Both are big point guards who don’t possess elite speed or leaping ability. The 19-year-old Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his only season at Oklahoma State, while Doncic averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists at the same age during his rookie NBA season with the Dallas Mavericks. Both have made memorable clutch baskets early in their careers.

Even Cunningham himself can’t ignore the comparison.

“Right now I watch a whole bunch of Luka Doncic,” Cunningham told reporters last July. “I grew up in Dallas, so Dirk [Nowitzki] was my guy and now Luka’s the new Dallas Mavs guy. So Luka, and we have a pretty similar body type.”

Upon further investigation, however, the similarities go way beyond body type and play style. You can see so much of Doncic in nearly every aspect of Cunningham’s offensive game, which explains why front offices are piling up losses for a chance to get him into a more spread, up-tempo NBA scheme.

Here is a breakdown of the similarities between Doncic and Cunningham. We always have to be careful with comparisons like this — just because they have similar games doesn’t mean they’ll have equal careers — but the skills we saw from Cunningham in one year of college certainly bode well for his NBA future.

Pick-and-Roll Playmaking

One of the first similarities you’ll notice between Cunningham and Doncic is the way they navigate the pick-and-roll. One of Doncic’s trademarks is using his body to shield the trailing defender as he surveys the court before ultimately deciding to dish or take the shot.

We saw glimpses of this from Cunningham at Oklahoma State, and he should utilize the technique more at the next level to take advantage of his size and strength.

Patience is another quality that stands out among both Doncic and Cunningham in the pick-and-roll, as they play at their own pace and allow things to unfold before making a decision. Watch here as the two players execute nearly identical one-handed passes to bigs for easy buckets.

They have both also displayed deft touch and timing on their passes, like on these lobs over the top of the defense.

Doncic has become a wizard at no-look passes, particularly when he kicks to wing shooters. It might look like showboating, but it serves an important purpose. Here, for example, Doncic keeps his eyes on the rolling Kristaps Porzingis long enough to suck in RJ Barrett, who can’t fully recover as Josh Richardson hits the 3-pointer.

Cunningham hasn’t quite displayed the Luka Magic we see on a nightly basis in terms of his over-the-head and behind-the-head no-looks, but at Oklahoma State he utilized the same principle of luring the defense in by staring down the big, then dishing to the open wing, as he did here against West Virginia.

Trapping is a common wrinkle that defenses will throw at a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and Doncic’s height and patience allow him to make some brilliant cross-court passes to find the open shooter in a four-on-three situation.

Cunningham has shown this ability as well, dribbling to the sideline here to create more space out of the trap, then firing a pass that hits the shooter right in the pocket.

Operating the pick-and-roll is an essential function of a lead guard in today’s NBA, and Cunningham has already displayed the tools and instincts to be elite in that area.

(If you don’t feel like reading this entire breakdown, here’s a video highlighting the major similarities between Cunningham and Doncic)

Third-Level Passing

Earlier this season when I asked what makes LaMelo Ball’s vision and passing so special, Hornets coach James Borrego gave me a tremendous answer about the three levels of playmaking. You can read more about the details here, but essentially Borrego said what distinguishes elite playmakers is the ability to make reads and passes from the “third level,” which is when you’re driving toward the basket with bigs jumping to block your shot and a split-second to make the right decision.

We’ve seen this from Doncic time and time again, as he glides toward the basket with seemingly nowhere to go, then finds an impossible angle to fire a laser on-time and on-target to an open shooter. Here, he finds Maxi Kleber in the corner with a one-handed hook pass that might as well been hand-delivered on a silver platter.

This is what gets scouts and front offices so excited about Cunningham. His third-level vision and precision are impeccable for a player his age, and he’s already able to make NBA reads in traffic. Watch here, as he nearly drifts out of bounds while waiting for the angle to open up, then uses his strength and accuracy to deliver a frozen rope to the open shooter.

Physically, passing to the corner from this position is probably the easiest outlet. But teams quickly adjust to that and begin to cut off the angle. That’s where Luka thrives, by looking toward the corner, then contorting his body to somehow get the pass to a wing shooter instead of the corner.

If you replaced Cunningham with Luka in the next clip, nobody would bat an eyelash. The corner pass is guarded, so Cunningham hangs in the air and somehow finds the open wing shooter. It doesn’t go in, but that was a consistent theme for Cunningham at Oklahoma State, contributing to his underwhelming assist totals.

And just to put a ribbon on the third-level passing skills, let’s take a look at both Doncic and Cunningham getting into the same position, but using patience and anticipation to find cutters instead of open shooters. First Cunningham:

Then Luka, in a slightly more audacious manner:

As you can see, Cunningham has what it takes to be an elite NBA playmaker in drive-and-kick settings. The increased spacing and shooting ability at the NBA level could eventually put him toward the top of the league in assists, and open things up for him as a scorer.

Speaking of scoring …

Step-back 3s

James Harden made the move ubiquitous, and Doncic has picked up the torch admirably. The majority of Doncic’s eight 3-point attempts per game this season are of the step-back variety, and he’s improved his overall accuracy from 32 percent over his first two years to 36 percent this season.

Cunningham shot 40 percent from deep on 5.7 attempts per game in his lone college season and demonstrated the ability to consistently hit step-backs. This is an essential tool for primary ball-handlers, and the height of Cunningham and Doncic makes the shot nearly impossible to contest. Watch here as both players use a crossover to get the defender on his heels, then step back to create just enough space to get the shot off.

Doncic has also displayed the ability to do this at full speed, stopping on a dime and using a pull-back dribble to create a 3-point look.

Cunningham didn’t do much of this in college, but moves like this suggest it can eventually become a regular part of his arsenal.

Given his other offensive skills, the step-back 3 has taken Doncic from an All-Star to an MVP contender. Even from a small sample size, we can see that Cunningham is more than capable of becoming proficient in that area as well.

Finishing at the rim

Both Cunningham and Doncic lack traditional athleticism, but they finish around the rim at an incredibly effective rate because of their wide array of moves and hesitations. Doncic is in the NBA’s 76th percentile with 1.286 points per possession around the basket, according to Synergy Sports Technology, while Cunningham averaged 1.333 points per possession around the rim at Oklahoma State, good for the 82nd percentile in NCAA Division I basketball.

Rather than speed and verticality, Doncic and Cunningham use hesitations and misdirection to throw off the timing of defenders. Both are well-versed in the Eurostep, using long strides and body control to avoid charges in the lane.

They also disrupt the timing of shot blockers by getting into their body and then hanging in the air for an extra split second to allow the defender to fly by.

One area that separates Luka from Cunningham (and pretty much everyone else) is his incredible floater game. Doncic is in the 92nd percentile, averaging 1.144 points per possession on “runners,” according to Synergy. This is the result of tremendous touch, which he displays here while having the body control to stop just short of the defender to avoid a charge.

Cunningham’s floater was not nearly as effective in his lone college season, averaging just 0.576 points per possession, good for the 24th percentile. This is an obvious area to target for improvement since it’s a shot that defenses often bait ball-handlers into taking. He has potential, however, as you can see in this clip where he shows the same type of touch and control as Doncic on his free throw line floater.

Cunningham has the strength, size and tricks around the rim to eventually become as dominant of a finisher as Doncic, especially if he can develop a reliable floater.

Post-Ups

Doncic doesn’t post up much — about seven percent of his offensive possessions this season, according to Synergy — but it’s a good weapon to have against the wide variety of defenses he sees. Doncic is especially good at passing out of double teams in the post, using his vision to find shooters all over the court.

Cunningham displayed a similar ability in college, as you can see with these one-handed passes to wing shooters.

In terms of scoring from the post, both Doncic and Cunningham have the ability to overpower smaller defenders if no help comes, using bully ball tactics to get to the rim — both average about 1.1 points per possession as a post-up scorer. If they can’t get all the way to the basket, they’ve both developed an effective fadeway over the right shoulder.

Obviously there are many differences between the two players, and Cunningham has a long way to go to get even close to Doncic’s NBA accomplishments. But when you watch the video it’s easy to see why the comparisons exist, and why Cunningham has been the consensus top player in his class for so long.

“I think I’m just a basketball player who is good with the ball in his hands,” Cunningham said in March. “I don’t know what position you want to call it, but I think I’m at my best when I’m making plays. I think that’s how I’ll translate to the NBA.”



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