Updated: May 11
All good things must come to an end, but there’s no better way to cap off a year of 5-Point Plays than by discussing the best of what the draft has to offer. In the eighth and final volume of P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, basketball analyst Henry Ward takes a closer look at the five players most often slotted into the first five picks in this year’s upcoming draft. From Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley’s brilliance in coveted archetypes to G-League Ignite stars Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga’s areas of improvement, we cover the good and the bad in what’s likely the column’s final rendition in this draft cycle.
Here’s what caught our eye, all season long:
Cade Cunningham’s Franchise Cornerstone Profile
Once in every few drafts comes a prospect who’s tailor-made for the NBA they’re entering in more ways than one. Every player has their holes and it’s dangerous to label guys as “can’t miss,” but there is a certain “know it when you see it” type of player that, when he enters the draft, represents a pathway to stardom and exceptional value that’s far less jagged and crowded than many others. This year, this player is Cade Cunningham, the 6’8” freshman wing initiator from Oklahoma State who has not only shined as a player at nearly every step, but done so in ways that are exceptionally exciting given where the NBA game is today. Not only has Cade dominated competition, but he’s dominated with the sort of on-ball creation, passing brilliance, pull-up shooting and defensive impact that makes up the ideal NBA primary in the year 2021.
As we have with the other 5-Point Plays, the goal here will be to briefly cover each player and what makes them special, but keeping the “briefly” qualifier with Cunningham feels not only impossible, but somewhat unfair. At 6’8”, 220 pounds with room to add even more strength, Cunningham is an ox of an advantage creator who wisely uses compact, succinct dribble moves to create windows for himself as both a scorer and passer. He’s a graduate from the Luka Doncic school of adaptable pace, rarely beating guys with burst or shake but more often with change of speeds and strength. Once he’s through the first line of defense is where he shines most, with his most elite skill (in a package with multiple) being his passing savvy. Cunningham is a ridiculous passing prospect, simply put, given how well he sees the floor, analyzes decisions, and executes dishes with velocity, accuracy, and variability. Being able to get nearly any pass off is part of what separates him, as well — standing 6’8” with a 7-foot wingspan, there isn’t a pass Cunningham doesn’t see and can’t subsequently execute.
Coming into the year, Cunningham was the widely agreed upon favorite for the number-one pick, but there was still room for debate. On some mainstream recruiting services, he wasn’t even the number one player in his high school class. While some may say this was an oversight in and of itself, the point that stands to be made is that there were relevant concerns with Cunningham, most notably surrounding his shooting. As a prep player, he didn’t show the proficiency as a pull-up shooter some looked for in his archetype, which raised worry about his long term viability as an advantage creator. In response, he went on to have one of the most prolific self-created shooting seasons ever: he shot 41.2% from 3 with only 57% of makes coming off assists, and averaged 8.5 attempts from deep per 100 possessions. For context, Trae Young converted at 36.1% from three on 26.3% of makes assisted, Kyrie 46.2%/50%, and Damian Lillard 39.6%/51%. Using historical context, it’s extremely easy to see Cunningham becoming one of the more prolific pull-up shooters in the league over time, which is insane considering this was arguably the main concern surrounding him before this season.
There’s a lot more to like about him beyond these two traits as well — he’s a stud, versatile defender at the point of attack who uses his large frame, athleticism, and wits to stick with multiple positions, and is also terrific off the ball where his preternatural feel shines through as a weak side player who can force turnovers. However, because of the nature of this week’s volume, which covers truly some of the best this draft has to offer, it’s important to acknowledge where things can go wrong as well. In previous volumes I’ve stayed away from this, but to close this series, it feels important to give a full analysis of these players, all of whom seem widely expected to go in the top five picks. While Cade is in a class of his own at the top to an extent, two things that do provide slight cause for concern are the sustainability of his advantage creation and his developing understanding of when to attack and pull back. As covered earlier, he’s not one to beat you with traditional fast-twitch shiftiness or burst. His advantages come through a dance on the perimeter where he dictates the pace and, once he breaks the first line, in the post where he can overpower with strength. It is yet to be a problem thus far, but he doesn’t quite have the same athletic dominance as some other notable wing creators, and seeing how that plays out for him against better defenders may be worth watching. Apart from that, it seems he’s also learning how to work with his overpowering feel for the game in tighter moments at times. Given how well he reads things, you can sense a little bit of tug-of-war happening internally when his team needs him to take over as a scorer and turn down sensical, correct passes in favor of “less optimal” shots for himself. Ultimately, it’s a great problem to have, but one that reared its head a bit in the tournament loss to Oregon State.
Beyond everything that makes Cade great from a skill perspective, what truly sets him apart is what he’s able to do in such a valuable archetype. Across the NBA, the most successful teams are most often led by players that exist in a similar vein; mega-sized ball handlers who can be an offense unto themselves through their ability to create their own shot and distribute for others, while also being able to match the opponent’s best player defensively effectively with versatility. Cade profiles as someone who’s able to do just that given his physical tools, elite, NBA-ready, highly desirable compound skills, and unmatched mental approach. At the top of every draft, there are players who dominante through their high-level, bankable traits, but what makes Cunningham so uniquely worthy of top-tier investment is that these skills for him are exactly what every NBA team desires because they both raise the floor of what a lineup looks like at both ends while also raising the ceiling. Cade’s magic would fit alongside, and ultimately exceptionally elevate, basically any situation he were to be thrust into. Those sorts of players are the best of what we have in basketball today, and what make Cade the easy choice for anyone with the #1 pick.
Evan Mobley’s Unicorn Skill Set
Since we’ve now covered Cade’s clear-cut case for the number-one pick, the logical chain of events is to discuss Evan Mobley, a traditional first overall pick in his own right. Yes, the top of this draft is uniquely special in that the second best player in it fits the bill of a typical 1.1, and then some. Beyond the core group of XL-sized initiators, perhaps the next most valuable archetype in the modern NBA is the mobile, floor spacing, ball moving, rim protecting, pick-and-roll coverage versatile big man. Such a player unlocks a world of possibilities from a team-building and scheming perspective, because they typically replace players who are woefully deficient on one end with plus skills and versatility all over the court. In other words, modern team-building often requires a choice to be made between offense and defense at the center position, where one has to select between A) a more defensive-minded, rim protecting big who’s likely less versatile, less mobile, and lacks skills that raise an offensive ceiling or B), a more coverage versatile, ball-handling competent, floor spacing big who cannot protect the rim nearly as effectively. This choice requires the other four players on the court cover up for this player on their deficient side of the ball, and is generally understood as a necessary sacrifice worth making given how scarce players than jump this category are.
In steps Evan Mobley, a true 7-footer who moves like a guard, puts a lid on the rim with freakish tools and technique, spaces the floor both horizontally and vertically, can put the ball on the floor, manipulates defenders with passing, and can play just about any desired pick-and-roll coverage far better than his counterparts. A unicorn in every sense, Mobley is a Mr. Potato Head-esque prospect who is an amalgamation of nearly every desirable trait one would want in a big man when considering how the game is played now and where it’s headed. While he projects to be uniquely special on both ends, his impact will be most obvious on the defensive end, where his mix of size, tools, feel, and versatility allows him to fill any sort of defensive role asked of him to its fullest extent. In reality, this appears on court as a center who is a “funnel drives to me and I’ll handle it” level of rim protector who can also step out and contain smaller ball-handlers when necessary. This sort of versatility combined with the elite rim protection skills is incredibly rare, and makes for an extremely tantalizing prospect on this end.