‘He’s a matchup nightmare:’ An in-depth look at what makes Cade Cunningham successful


Khanh Nguyen/ The Sunflower

Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham greets his teammates prior to the Cowboys game against the Shockers on Dec. 12 inside Charles Koch Arena.

The top recruit in the country, Cade Cunningham, will be coming to Wichita on Saturday as the Shockers face off against Oklahoma State.

Cunningham is currently the projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and has already settled in at the collegiate level. In his first five games with the Cowboys, the 6 foot 8 inches point guard is averaging 20.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. 

Wichita State Interim Head Coach Isaac Brown said it will be a difficult matchup for WSU given his size at the point guard position.

“He can play one, two, three, four,” Brown said. “He brings it up for them. He’s a matchup problem. If you put your point guard on him to guard him full court, they’ll UCLA cut him to the low block and post him up. So he’s a matchup nightmare.”

There are many things to Cunningham’s game that makes him so difficult to stop and plan for as a defense. Here are the main areas of the freshman’s game that make him effective. 



Given Cunningham’s size and length, he is one of the best at his position in getting to the rim. So far this season, Cunningham is shooting 27-53 on two-pointers, good enough for 50.9%. 

One of the ways that Cunningham gets to the rim and converts at a high percentage is through the use of the pick and roll as well as transition. Given his athleticism, Cunningham has success in transition, tallying 24 points on 9-24 in transition possessions, according to Synergy. 

Cunningham has especially thrived in the pick and roll in getting to the lane and converting. In 23 possessions as the pick and roll ball handler, Cunningham has tallied 29 points which are good enough for 1.26 points per possession in these scenarios. In total, 28.7% of Cunningham’s total points this season have come during the pick and roll. 

What makes Cunningham so difficult to defend in these situations is his ability to finish at the rim with such a high percentage. If the defense decides to bring a help defender, Cunningham has already proven his ability to find his open teammates to make the defense pay. 



Another key to Cunningham’s early-season success is how consistent he has been with his jump shot in the early going. On three-pointers, Cunnigham has 8-17 (47.1%) which ranks No. 186 nationally. 

Primarily Cunningham has utilized his jump shot in OSU’s half-court and has found success as a result. Cunningham has gone 11-29 (37.9%) on jump shots in the half-court while collecting 29 points on those shot attempts. In the half-court, Cunningham has taken a jump shot 53.7% of the time, according to Synergy. 

Cunningham has also been successful when shooting jump shots off the dribble, converting at a 40% clip. He has also found success in catch-and-shoot scenarios when being guarded, going 2-5 (40%). Cunningham has only gone 1-4 (25%) while being unguarded on catch-and-shoot shot attempts.

Because of Cunningham’s success shooting the ball so far this season, it makes the defense have to respect his ability to drive as well as his jump shot. This aspect of his game just makes him more difficult to prepare for as a defense. 



Given Cunningham’s size at his position, he has brought the post up into his arsenal and has been effective as a result. Cunningham has utilized post-ups 8.7% of the time and has gone 2-5 for eight points on those looks. 

Because of that size advantage, Cunningham will frequently post up his smaller defender especially if the opponent matches him up with another point guard. On these post-ups, Cunningham is also getting to the free throw at a rate of 22.2%. Even if Cunningham is not converting on these post-ups, there is still a high chance of the possession ending in points. 

Cunningham has also been able to use that size on the glass to collect 5.6 rebounds per game. Cunningham has collected a total of five offensive rebounds and has turned that into five second-chance points. Cunningham has gone 2-2 on shot attempts off of offensive rebounds. 


WSU’s Plan

In his weekly press conference this week, Brown said one of the ways they will try to slow down Cunningham is by throwing different defenses at him.

“We’ll throw a lot of things at him. You know, sometimes we’ll defend at a ball screen. Sometimes we’ll have Dexter on him and we’ll put Trey on him anytime they throw it to him in a low post. We’ll try to double team him. We’ll want to try to get the ball out of his hands as much as possible.”

Dexter Dennis, who has become the team’s “defensive stopper” over the past two seasons, is expected to open up on Cunningham. Brown said that he presents the biggest challenge for Dennis thus far in his collegiate career on defense. 

“I think he’s up for the challenge,” Brown said. “It’ll be the biggest challenge of his college basketball career. This is a kid that’s super talented, he’s got great size, he’s a top-three NBA prospect for a reason. I think Dexter’s got to do a good job of giving him different looks.”