A gunslinger was forged under the beating Texas sun in the 1980s. Though only 6’ tall, Keith Cunningham had a rocket arm and a preternatural ability to read the field. As a senior at Arlington’s Sam Houston High, he was named District 5A-7 Offensive Player of the Year and emerged as one of the top quarterback recruits in the country. He held offers from Ken Hatfield’s powerful Arkansas program and from SMU, just as the latter was receiving its first sanctions in the legendary death penalty scandal.
Cunningham committed to Texas Tech instead. On the day he moved to Lubbock, he was at his mother’s house moving furniture when a freak accident changed his life. Cunningham lifted a bed that struck a rotating ceiling fan, causing it to fall and cut his arm. He never threw a football the same way again, leaving school after two years before pursuing a brief semi-pro career.
Nearly 30 years later, another Cunningham began to shine on the football field. While many young quarterbacks liked to make plays with their feet, Keith’s youngest son, Cade, grew up idolizing Tony Romo and preferred to do his damage from the pocket. Cade claims his junior high team never lost a game. He could have been on the same path as his father, but he felt a stronger pull from a different sport.
“I didn’t have as strong of a passion for football as my father did,” Cade Cunningham says. “Basketball brings an adrenaline rush that I didn’t get when I was playing football or anything else. I don’t know where I’d be without basketball.”
Cunningham stands now on the brink of basketball stardom. He blew up during the summer before his senior year, dominating Nike’s EYBL circuit on his way to the league MVP award. Cunningham powered USA Basketball to a gold medal against older competition in the FIBA U19 World Cup, and has positioned himself as a consensus top-three recruit in the class of 2020. He could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Cunningham is a superstar for the modern game, following the NBA’s recent trend of oversized ball handlers. Though listed as a small forward for most of his prep career, Cunningham made the full-time transition to point guard after his sophomore year. For his size — 6’7, 230 pounds — he offers a rare combination of passing, handling, and the power to finish through contact. He may be the first player to ever be compared to Luka Doncic.
Born two weeks after 9/11 and still months away from his 18th birthday, Cunningham already carries himself like a pro. His star has risen so quickly that some recruiting analysts believe he’s the best NBA prospect in high school basketball.
“I haven’t scouted many prospects as polished, mature, and talented as Cade Cunningham,” says Jerry Meyer, director of scouting for 247 Sports. “He has that powerful, functional athleticism. It’s not going to win you a dunk contest but it is going to get you an and-one.”
For a player already blessed with so much polish, the most extraordinary thing about Cunningham might bet that he’s just getting started.
Cunningham was a star at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas, from the moment he took the court, averaging 15 points, six rebounds, and three assists per game as a freshman on varsity. He believed even then that he could be one of the best players in his class in the country. His inner circle — led by his older brother Cannen, and cousin and trainer Ashton Bennings — devised a plan to make it happen.
The first step involved a daring position change.
“If you can turn into a point guard, just think about how much longer you’ll be able to play,” Cunningham recalls his brother telling him.
While Cunningham had risen into a national top-25 recruit by the end of his sophomore year at Bowie, his brother knew his future would be brighter if he could become a lead ball handler. In the summer heading into his junior year, Cannen held Cade back from the senior circuit on EYBL to develop him as a point guard on the U16 level. It didn’t take long before everyone around him realized he was a natural leading an offense.
Leaving Texas to transfer to Florida prep school Montverde Academy was Cunningham’s second step. Since head coach Kevin Boyle arrived from St. Patrick’s in New Jersey in 2011 following a successful run led by Kyrie Irving, no high school in the country has produced more elite basketball talent. Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, and R.J. Barrett are the program’s most notable alums.
Montverde’s roster featured five other top-100 recruits including McDonald’s All-American Precious Achiwa (Memphis), guard Harlond Beverly (Miami), centers Balsa Koprivica (Florida State) and Omar Payne (Florida), and guard Moses Moody (uncommitted). Boyle had no problem giving Cunningham the keys to the offense.
Almost immediately, Cunningham noticed a sharp uptick in intensity when he arrived on campus.
“Even our light shoot-arounds always turn into a scrimmage,” Cunningham says. “And now it’s a super competitive scrimmage and it’s like another game. There are not a lot of easy buckets going around. You don’t get any time to relax. It’s always ‘Let’s get better.’”
The first hints at a superstar turn happened when Montverde faced powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Tampa in February. That meant a matchup with the top-ranked senior point guard in the country, Cole Anthony. Cunningham finished the game with 26 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds in a blowout victory.
“Cade was the best player on the floor in a game full of future pros,” Boyle told SB Nation. “We knew how good he was before that game. I think that’s when the rest of the world started to figure it out.”
The performance helped take Cunningham to the fringe of a top-10 ranking by the end his junior year. His spring and summer on the EYBL boosted him into an even greater stratosphere.
After averaging 12 points per game for Montverde, Cunningham’s inner circle developed a new plan to improve his scoring ability on the Nike circuit. Back in Texas, Cunningham and Bennings started two-a-day training to improve his biggest weakness: outside shooting. Bennings made Cunningham hold his follow through on his jumper and focus on getting shots up with great volume even when he was tired.
“Everyone knows he’s unselfish,” Bennings says. “We heard people say he passes too much. The last checkmark on the list was him scoring.”
Cunningham was a force of nature from the moment the EYBL season began. He was too strong to contain going to the rim, and improved as a three-point shooter. He also continued to impress with his reads as a passer and fortified the belief that he’d be a point guard long-term. Cunningham ended the year with some of the best numbers in the history of the league: 25.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game on 37.5 percent shooting from deep. He also recorded the best box score plus-minus on the circuit.
When the AAU season was over, Cunningham received a phone call to try out for USA Basketball’s U19 World Cup run despite being two grade levels below the tournament’s oldest players. Not only did he make the team, he grew into one of its most dependable players in Greece. Cunningham helped the U.S. secure a gold medal by dropping 21 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists against Mali in the tournament’s final game.
“Confidence was the biggest thing,” Cunningham says of his breakout summer. “Montverde is as close as you get to college at the high school level. Going from that to AAU, it’s a little more free and a faster paced game. My confidence carried over and that’s when you started to see the 25-point games.”
Cunningham’s star has risen so dramatically that he could be the frontrunner to be the No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick if he entered a wide-open draft next year, not in 2021. He is just barely old enough to reclassify and play college ball in the fall, which would make him 2.5 months younger than Zion Williamson when he was drafted with the first overall pick. Cunningham admits that he’s had discussions with his family about the possibility, but he’s comfortable with another year of high school ball at Montverde.
“We talked about it for a little bit,” Cunningham says. “I think I’m in the right grade right now. I never reclassified growing up. If I do make it to the league, I want to be able to stay in the league and be ready for it. Just taking this time to get better, spending another year with coach Boyle will help me a lot.”
Oklahoma State has become the consensus favorite to win his college recruitment after hiring Cannen as an assistant last month. While Cunningham notes his brother is the biggest influence in his life, he says that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to commit to the Cowboys. Every blue blood in the country — from Duke to North Carolina to Kentucky — has also offered him.
“I’m not feeling any pressure,” Cunningham says of his college decision. “I’m still just happy to be where I’m at. just having all these elite schools and coaches coming after me.”
College will ultimately only be a small footnote in Cunningham’s story. Blessed with an immense blend of size, skill, and poise, this is a big guard who has all the tools to eventually grow into an NBA star. Perhaps the most impressive thing about him is his mindset.
“I want to be a Hall of Fame player, MVP, national champion,” Cunningham says. “But I want to be remembered more for what I’ve done off the court with the money I make with my social status and how I help people. If I can use that stage to impact other people’s lives, that’s all I can ask for.”
With so much polish, it’s easy to forget he is still just 17 years old. A generation after his father’s athletic dreams were dashed, Cade Cunningham is on the brink of fulfilling his own potential.