Film with Frank: Assessing Cade Cunningham's NCAA debut

It's been a dormant couple of months on my Patreon. I apologize for that. A slew of personal and professional responsibilities have dominated my time and daily schedule. But the hiatus is over, and with the 2020-21 NCAA season kicking off Wednesday, I've decided I'll aim to produce a few immediate post-game film breakdowns on 2021 prospects each month. I'll watch a game, scribble down notes and pull a number of clips that I deem relevant to said prospect's skill-set and outlook.

Today's feature prospect is Cade Cunningham, the undisputed top guy in this year's class and one of the best prospects in recent memory. Cade and the Oklahoma State Cowboys opened their season with a 75-68 win over UT Arlington on Wednesday. 

In the victory, Cade posted 21 points (7-of-16 shooting, 2 of 5 from deep, 5 of 7 at the line), 10 rebounds and three assists. While far from a dominant or otherworldly showing -- his brilliant and manipulative passing, post game and on-ball defense were largely absent -- he still displayed many of the skills and athletic tools that make him such a stellar prospect. Let's get into it, and have some fun. Cade is a treat and we should enjoy every opportunity to watch him.

I've clipped 10 plays from his showing, and divided them into five different categories. Rather than proceed in sequential order, I'll group the clips by category and go in-depth about the various individual plays.

Cade's combination of handle, strength, balance and change of pace

Aside from the diverse and high-level passing arsenal, part of what makes Cade such a wonderful primary initiator prospect is his marriage of skills and athletic tools. At 6-foot-8, he possesses supremely functional strength and balance, which, when paired with a weaponized handle and off-beat cadence/change of pace, yield a tremendous downhill scorer. Time and time again on Wednesday, all of these traits manifested and enabled Cade to showcase his advanced slashing pedigree. A 6-foot-8 dude with strength AND handle like Cade is challenging to stop, and that intersection is partially why he's such a heralded prospect.

There is nothing particularly dexterous about this bucket, but the other components of his slashing package are prevalent. He catches, waits for the defender to shift weight forward and shifts gears with the crossover into the paint. Once the defender begins retreating, Cade lowers his shoulder, initiates contact, maintains balance with ease and converts the off-hand lay-up. 

The bucket looks easy, but many 19-year-old prospects would fall apart somewhere along the way. Cade does not, because he checks every box necessary to fulfill the requirements: craft as a driver, strength, balance and finishing touch. Much of what Cade does on the floor appears simple, but a fine-combed replay conveys otherwise. 

The previous clip was merely a prelude to this score, though. This is the best example of Cade's elite slashing game from Wednesday's contest. He discards his man with strength and deceleration to create space, seamlessly flows from left to right with a behind-the-back dribble and explodes out of it to score at the rim, undeterred by the oncoming help defense.

There's no delay in transitioning from dribble move to drive. He dislodges one guy and scores through another. The handle is slippery and instinctive. Cade is rarely flustered as a ball-handler and wields various counters, whether it be change of pace, strength or a dribble move. All of those assets play a role here. 

Cade didn't draw as many free-throws (two of them were late) as I'd expect against a lesser opponent, but once again, his handle and change of pace present themselves in this instance. A little in-and-out dribble shifts his defender into the screen and a hesitation provides him the requisite slight advantage against the big man to draw a foul. Manipulation is one of Cade's premier skills offensively and it's rather apparent on this trip to the free-throw line.

Pull-up shooting

Cade has long been a good shooter and over the past year or so, he's streamlined his mechanics to further instill confidence in his long-term projection. The main hindrance has been volume, but everything else suggests he's going to be good enough to command respect in the NBA. As a primary ball-handler, the level his pull-up shooting reaches will be interesting to monitor. I believe in him to a pretty substantial degree, and he flashed some encouraging buckets Wednesday.

This defender has no chance of containing Cade on the possession and he knows it. He generates ample space initially by promptly flipping on the brakes before scooting by him with a sweeping crossover and screen rejection. The big man is dropped in the paint and Cade waltzes into the mid-range pull-up. Manipulation, handle and off-the-bounce shooting are the key variables on this score. 

I love this bucket from Cade. His defender ducks under the screen, so Cade decides to punish him, launching an early clock pull-up 3. There is no hesitation. The energy transfer, upper body mechanics and lower body mechanics are synchronized. He holds the follow-through. Splash.

Cade can live and excel in the paint as a scorer. Many opponents are cognizant of this and will invite him to shoot. But Cade is a good shooter. Recognizing when the best available shot is a pull-up 3 is important and he understands that in this situation. The entire portion of this clip is positive. The thought process, the mechanics, the results. Good stuff from the superstar freshman. 

Off-ball defense

Despite not registering any steals or blocks, Wednesday was a good team defense outing for Cade. He was consistently well-positioned off the ball to subtly deter passes or decisions and also executed various important responsibilities as any astute team defender should. Cade is a good defender, and a close examination from his collegiate debut reinforces that.

Cade's intersection of size (6-foot-8), length (7-foot wingspan) and mobility are critical to his team defense. He's adept playing stunt-and-recover scenarios, and that's exactly the case on this clip, aggressively helping off of his man to properly time the stunt and muck up the drive. 

If the ball-handler swings a pass to the corner, Cade can retreat, relying on his mobility and length to affect any decision. Instead, his well-executed stunt forces the driver to pick up his dribble and increase the degree of difficulty of his rim attempt. There's nothing glamorous, but it's a paramount duty for good team defenders and he fulfills it properly.

Again, we're looking at standard, yet crucial, stuff with regard to off-ball defense, though the clip evolves into an on-ball example as well. Initially, Cade rotates to deter the pick-and-pop 3 before scurrying back to his man for a controlled closeout. 

Then, the possession flows into on-ball requirements. Cade applies his length to dissuade the 3 and stays attached on the drive to remain a factor. So much of defensive excellence can be easily missed and there's nothing Cade does in this sequence that pops off the screen. Even so, he greatly influences the end result of the possession, and that's quite valuable. 

No need to overanalyze this one. Cade simply makes a timely rotation to curb a potential shot at the rim and forces a pass to the weak-side corner. His size and length are imposing on the interior and amplify his defensive equity.

On-ball defense

Opportunities to lock up on the perimeter were not frequent for Cade in this one. But late in the first half, he illuminates his on-ball prowess. He cuts off the drive while absorbing the blow and preserving balance (shout out core strength!), and glides over the screen to stay attached. 

The possession falls apart when his teammates botch the coverage, with one gambling for a steal and another late to rotate inside. But again, you see how, in yet another context, how impactful his size, fluidity, strength and balance are.

*That concludes the inaugural installment of Film with Frank. I hope it was insightful in some capacity and you enjoyed watching Cade Cunningham play basketball. He's really good.*

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