Latest NBA Leads

Losing Early in March Madness Shouldn't Be a Stain on Cade Cunningham's Resume

Liam McKeone
Cade Cunningham
Cade Cunningham / Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
facebooktwitter

The projected No. 1 overall pick for this year's NBA Draft was on display over the last two weeks as Cade Cunningham led the Oklahoma State Cowboys to a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Cunningham is a big point forward who can score, pass, and defend at extremely high levels for a freshman. His play may not be super flashy or produce many "jump out of your seat" highlights, but he is the complete package.

Despite how good Cunningham is now and will be at the NBA level, he was unable to prevent defeat at the hands of Oregon State in the second round of March Madness Sunday night. OK State will go home after losing 80-70 to the Beavers. Cunningham will now begin to prepare for the draft and announce his decision to enter the event in short order. A projected top pick doesn't stay at college, even if he came up short in the biggest of all college tournaments.

The early exit for Cunningham and the Cowboys led to a segment on Undisputed today in which Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe agreed that Cunningham is not "that guy" who will take over in big moments and carry his team against all odds. Specifically, Bayless said he is not Kevin Durant.

To start, comparing anyone to Kevin Durant is a fool's errand. He's a once-in-a-generation player, and by the rules of that moniker, most players who are selected in the draft will not be Kevin Durant.

However, this is not a shot at Bayless. This is what draft season is all about. No. 1 overall picks, a group Cunningham will almost certainly join in a few months, are supposed to be franchise-altering players. That's the hope, anyway. So it's only natural to compare them to the franchise-altering players that currently exist, and Durant is definitely one of those.

My issue comes in that Bayless and Sharpe are using Cunningham's early tournament exit as evidence that he is not that type of player. And it's not only because Durant did ... the exact same thing as Cunningham in his one year at Texas. Durant dazzled with his handle and shooting as a freshman with the Longhorns, earned a four-seed for his team, won his first game in the NCAA Tournament, then faltered in the second round and lost to the five-seed USC Trojans led by Nick Young. It is precisely what happened to Cunningham, down to both players winning Big 12 Player of the Year and minus the fact that this year's Oregon State was a 12-seed rather than a five-seed.

In context of the Bayless discussion, Durant did have 30 points in his college career-ending loss while Cunningham managed only 24, shooting a horrendous 6-of-20 from the field in the process. So Cunningham isn't as good of a scorer as Durant. That's no surprise. Quite literally nobody is.

It's the larger point that I find weak. Top-tier prospects don't single-handedly carry their teams to titles anymore. Bayless brings up Carmelo Anthony's epic freshman year run at Syracuse that ended with a championship and how he thought Cunningham might be that type of guy. It shouldn't be held against Cunningham that he was unable to do that.

Anthony's run took place almost two decades ago. In the last 10 years, the only No. 1 pick to do anything similar was Anthony Davis, and even he needed a good amount of help to win a title with Kentucky, averaging only 13 points per game during their championship run in 2012. In fact, most of the players dominating the NBA right now -- guys like Durant, Davis, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard -- were unable to single-handedly drag their teams to championships while in college for various reasons. Yet they are all franchise-altering talents.

Some of those examples are admittedly weaker than others; Curry and Lillard backpacked their respective squads far further into March Madness than they should have. Harden, George, and Leonard were late bloomers. Embiid was hurt. The larger point here is that March Madness success is not the sole indicator of how good a player can be, even if it's the slight difference between very good and great as it is for Cunningham. He has the skillset to be a franchise-altering player.

Maybe Cunningham won't be Durant, but that's no shame. He could be nearly as good as Durant, which would make him a whopping success at the professional level. The fact that he was unable to overcome the Oregon State Beavers shouldn't take away from that.

facebooktwitter