Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton looked over at Cade Cunningham during the pregame meeting and said, "We need you today."
A few hours later, Cunningham was all smiles in the locker room, jumping up and down with his teammates with celebratory water being splashed everywhere after the Cowboys upset No. 6 West Virginia with an 85-80 road win March 6.
“Cade was a big part of today’s win,” Boynton said after the game.
The Cowboys traveled to Morgantown in the final outing of a tough five-game stretch to close the year that included five top-20 opponents. Cunningham, a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and the Big 12 Player of the Year who led the conference by scoring 20.2 points per game, showed up for his teammates. He always does.
He was exactly what they needed him to be and played a major role in helping lift the Cowboys to one of their most impressive wins of the regular season — without even playing one minute.
He missed the game with a slightly sprained ankle. That didn’t stop him from being fully engaged on the bench, helping coach his teammates while being the biggest cheerleader for his squad.
“I just like seeing my dogs eat,” Cunningham said.
Boynton said Cunningham was the most vocal he’d been all year.
“I knew he’d be that way,” Boynton said. “He’s always been that way. It’s who he is. It’s why some of the criticism I’ve always said was unfair. The kid only cares about winning, and whether he’s going to go out there and score 25 and take 25 shots or he’s not going to play at all, he’s going to be a great teammate every day.
“And it’s one of the reasons that I believe, and I’m biased, no question, that he’s the best player in the country, because he does have the talent and the expectations that he should be the man, but he doesn’t let that distract from the main priority, which is trying to help this team and our program have success while he’s here.”
Sophomore Avery Anderson III scored a career-high 31 points in a game where OSU didn’t have its best player in Cunningham or its biggest leader, Isaac Likekele, on the floor. Anderson, a sophomore, made a strong case for the Big 12 most improved player of the year this season after many questioned if he would be able to co-exist with Cunningham and Likekele running the offense.
Anderson credited Cunningham for part of his growth.
“Just his energy and being a good teammate on and off the floor,” Anderson said. “Just when he’s talking to us when we sub out he’s just talking to us and telling us what he sees on the court and being a real good communicator for us. That’s what everybody needs.”
That’s who the 19-year-old Cunningham is at his core: a dedicated athlete who’s already proven he’ll do whatever it takes to turn himself into the best player in the country. He’s a winner who will risk personal accolades for the betterment of his team, and his loyalty to those he trusts goes far beyond the basketball court.
A 6-foot-8, 220-pound point guard with excellent court vision and basketball IQ who can score at will is a player NBA franchises salivate over.
He’s a player who can get you 40 points — as he did in the 94-90 overtime win at Oklahoma on Feb. 27 — but he’s also a player who can knock down the game-winning shot even when shooting 3-of-11, as he was before scoring the go-ahead 3-pointer with seconds left in a win at Wichita State on Dec. 12. Whatever it takes to win, Cunningham is willing to do it.
“All he cares about is winning,” said TCU freshman Mike Miles, Cunningham's close friend since third grade and former AAU teammate. “He doesn’t care about his points or stats. He just wants to win. If that means not scoring and getting his teammates involved, then he’ll do that.
"He's not a selfish guy on the court or off the court. I definitely think it's connected. I don't think he knows how to be selfish. He's very unselfish in every way. So I definitely think his game and his personality are connected for sure."
Cunningham's humility is his most enjoyable attribute, Boynton said. His maturity, commitment to winning, genuine care for his teammates and his desire to play the game the right way has allowed Cunningham to turn into a generational talent that has led the Cowboys to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017. No. 4-seeded OSU will play No. 13 Liberty at 5:25 p.m. Friday at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.
Cunningham is a star who Boynton said he expects to be the first name called in the NBA Draft. He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, but he isn’t consumed by it.
Cunningham isn’t surprised to become the first Cowboy to be named an Associated Press First-Team All-American. He isn’t surprised to be a finalist for the Naismith Trophy, handed to the best player in the country. He’s grateful for the accolades — but they aren’t his main focus.
He wants to win and have his teammates share the spotlight, even if that means being criticized for not being aggressive enough early in games.
“It’s truly been one of the best parts of the experience for me is his humility, the way he is with his teammates,” Boynton said. “In some ways it’s led to some of his critics’ voices being louder, because certainly there were games we played earlier in the year that he could have scored a lot more if he just put his mind to it and focused on it and said ‘Hey, I’m going to try to get 30 points.' It would be pretty hard for people to stop him, but he wants his teammates to have a share in that success. He wants our team to win. So whatever it is that he can do to win.”
Cunningham is clearly the best player on the OSU roster and welcomes the responsibility that comes with that, but he doesn’t force it. He trusts his teammates to make plays and he helps breed confidence in them any chance he can.
“The bottom line for me with Cade Cunningham is, he knows how to make people better and he also knows when to get his,” basketball analyst Jeff Goodman said in a phone interview. “That’s not easy for guys that are this young. He’s got such a maturity about him both on and off the court. Honestly, he’s one of my favorite players (and) kids that I have seen and been around in 20 years of doing this.”
Cunningham carries himself with a level of maturity that’s beyond his years, and much of that has to do with his 2-year-old daughter, Riley.
“It changed the way I looked at life for sure, and I think that kind of made me a little bit more mature and made me lock in a little bit more,” Cunningham said. “To be at this point right now, I’m excited for her.
“I think for anybody that’s having their first child, I think it’s kind of like scary. I was young. I was in high school. It was a bunch of different things. I think just switching that into motivation. I have to make this work. I have to do the best in whatever I’m pursuing from here.
“She’s everything. She’s like a bundle of happiness in a 2-year-old body. It’s not enough words really. That’s my daughter, she’s everything right now. She’s my motivation and more.”
Cunningham could have played for any college in the country, but he chose Oklahoma State over a typical blue-blood program. Having his older brother Cannen on the coaching staff obviously helped, but Cunningham chose Boynton, the first coach to offer him a scholarship as a freshman and the first college coach to see him play a high school game. Boynton established a close bond with Cunningham in the four years leading up to his commitment, and that meant something to him.
Cunningham doubled down on his decision by sticking with the Cowboys even after the NCAA imposed a one-year postseason ban. There was a legitimate chance that OSU would be barred from the tournament no matter how many games the Cowboys won this season. Cunningham stuck with OSU anyway and is now preparing for what would be the program's first tournament win in the round of 64 since 2009 with the OSU appeal ruling still undecided.
Cunningham’s OSU debut was in his hometown at UT Arlington on the anniversary date that Boynton saw Cunningham play his first high school basketball game. Boynton was the only college coach in the gym that day.
“That’s just God at work,” Cunningham said. “I think that’s the main thing to say. Believing in people that believe in you. He stuck with me since I was a young'un, a freshman in high school and recruited me hard and I believed in him being my coach. So yeah, I came in and I bought into whatever system he had. … I’m happy with my decision and I’m happy he’s my coach.”
Choosing OSU also allowed Cunningham to stay within driving distance of his daughter. Cunningham started his high school career at James Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas, where he was named the District 4-6A newcomer of the year as a freshman and named to the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches All-Region team as a sophomore. He left his hometown for Montverde Academy in Florida for his junior and senior seasons — more than 1,000 miles away from Riley.
“I was away at Montverde whenever she was born,” Cunningham said. “Finally being able to be a little bit closer definitely helped. I know regardless, my parents would have done whatever it took to close that gap for me, but being a four-hour drive away isn’t too bad. I’ve been super lucky for her to be at a bunch of games and stuff like that.”
Family is everything to Cunningham. His father, Keith, and mother, Carrie, have helped mold him into the young man he is today, and Cunningham is grateful for that.
“Her and my dad, they’re both just somebody that I know I can lean on,” Cunningham said of his parents. “If anything goes wrong, I know they’ll love me regardless. I know they’ll support me regardless so to have somebody like that, it’s a blessing for sure. To have both parents in the picture for me is a blessing. Two that try to make every game they can, try to bring all the rest of the family if they can. Just having that is huge. Somebody I can always talk to.”
At Montverde Academy, Cunningham played under legendary high school coach Kevin Boyle. Nine of Boyle’s former players have been selected in the NBA draft, including No. 1 picks Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons. Cunningham is expected to join that list.
And older brother Cannen has also been a huge help in his development. It was Cannen’s vision that helped turn him into a point guard good enough to be a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award.
The path to becoming a top point guard started with one play — the pick-and-roll.
In the summer of 2017, the pick-and-roll was the only half-court play that mattered. It seemed tedious for Cunningham, but that one summer under Cannen's tutelage helped mold him into the best recruit in the country. Cunningham started as a post player but made the switch to point guard through the guidance of his brother, who was the head coach of his 16-and-under AAU team.
“I almost guarantee I ran more ball screens than any other player in the country,” Cunningham said. “Every play, oh my God, I almost got tired of ball screens. Like, can somebody else get the ball for a ball screen?”
Although Cunningham showed frustration at times, Cannen knew the repetition was necessary for his younger brother’s development. Cunningham orchestrated the offense with each pick-and-roll play. He needed to get comfortable having that responsibility.
“Growing up he played the four and the five just because he was the biggest player,” Cannen said. “But he was always a good passer, even from the post. At a young age, passing was one of his special abilities and I just wanted to be able to help him separate himself. He’s a good athlete, but he’s not an elite athlete, so I knew he wouldn’t separate himself that way. But I thought with his size he could separate himself, so I thought it would be a good idea to put the ball in his hands more.”
Cunningham would become even more familiar with the pick-and-roll under Boynton.
Following OSU’s 76-58 win against Iowa State on Feb. 16, Boynton estimated that Cunningham ran about 30 ball screens in that game. He only made bad decisions in two of those plays, according to Boynton. The countless ball screens his brother forced on him paid off.
“I made it hard on him, but he appreciates everything I put him through and it was a great experience,” Cannen said.
Cunningham, a quarterback when he played football, showed great vision on the basketball court. He had the right skills and mechanics to make the position switch, but he also needed to believe in the process, and that wasn’t easy for a 16-year old. The countless ball screens were monotonous, but Cunningham trusted in the vision even when he didn’t see it at first.
“Cannen is one of the highest IQ dudes that I’ve met in life, not only basketball,” Cunningham said. “He’s got stuff that not a lot of guys are thinking like. I wanted to buy into it the whole time, but I’m young, so in the back of my head I wanted to rebel against it at the same time, like 'Man this ain’t going to work.' I picked it up pretty fast, so after I started seeing the benefits of it and got more and more comfortable with the position, I started to fall in love with it.”
Cannen is a former college player whose 134 career games at SMU ranks third in school history. He also ranks No. 6 at SMU with 131 career blocks and No. 11 with a 52.1% career shooting percentage. He played one year in Poland with Energa Czarni Slupsk for the 2015-16 season before coming back to pursue a full-time coaching career.
Cunningham, who is eight years younger than his 27-year-old brother, got a chance to see what life was like as a college basketball player through watching Cannen be a student-athlete. He wanted that experience when it was his turn.
“We lived down the road in Arlington, so I built relationships with some of the players and kind of got an inside feel of what the grind of a college basketball player was like,” Cunningham said. “And I fell in love with it from an early age. I got to see all the shoes in their locker room and just all the guys in there with the squad. I admired that from an early age and I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I was older, for sure.”
Cannen always helped mentor his younger brother, but Cunningham said when Cannen retired from playing is when he really got serious about Cunningham’s development, alongside his cousin Ashton.
“My cousin Ashton, he had been working out with me really all the way throughout,” Cunningham said. “So me and him had kind of really got a head start on the grind, and Cannen had been giving input from wherever he was playing. He was always sending drills of things that I might need to work on but whenever he got home and got to actually be around we started right away. And it was like we didn’t skip a beat. Ashton was still at every single workout and we’ve been grinding for a minute now.”
Cannen’s vision of turning him into a 6-8 point-guard helped Cunningham become the best player in one of the most competitive conferences in college basketball and put him on a path to becoming an NBA franchise player and potential superstar.
He’ll be ready for that moment when it comes, but for now, Cunningham’s only focus is beating Liberty.
“I hate to lose,” Cunningham said.