Cade Cunningham is into aliens. Like a lot.
“He’d wake me up at three o’clock in the morning with a video and be like ‘Look at this bro,’” Oklahoma State’s Rondel Walker recalled at Kansas City’s T-Mobile Center during Big 12 Media Days last month. “Aliens? He definitely thinks they’re real, like there’s real aliens up there.”
Late night chats about extraterrestrials simply came with the territory of having the future No. 1 overall draft pick as a roommate, and few people had a window into Cunningham’s lone year in Stillwater like Walker, the Cowboys’ sophomore guard.
When the pair of then-freshmen weren’t exchanging theories on UFOs and foreign organisms, they were usually talking about basketball and the future. Pro aspirations. Ways to approach the game. Life goals. In those talks with Cunningham, Walker saw up close not only who the NBA’s future top pick was, but also how he got there.
“Conversations like that brought us close together and showed me a lot,” Walker said. “Even at dinner. His perspective with him being vegan. He opened my mind to different things I didn’t think about on the daily.”
In Year 2 at OSU, Walker is leaning on the things he learned from Cunningham as he looks to build on his breakout freshman season.
Walker’s debut campaign had impressive numbers: 7.8 points and 1.5 steals per contest, 32 made 3-pointers, and 25.5 minutes per game, more than all but three Cowboys. It had moments, too, none bigger than his game-winner against sixth-ranked Kansas.
The “least-heralded” recruit according to coach Mike Boynton in a Cowboys class of 2020 that included Cunningham and forward Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, Walker arrived from Midwest City and made an immediate impact.
As a sophomore, he wants to make another jump, and both Walker and Boynton agree that that comes down to consistency.
“What’s his next step? To be a guy you can count on every day. Not just in games and not just every other game, but every practice,” Boynton said. “And to then be able to send that message to the guys.”
Entering Friday’s visit to Oral Roberts, Walker remains searching for consistency.
He started OSU’s first two games this season before dropping to the bench in the last four. Twice — in a loss to Oakland and in the Cowboys’ Nov. 17 win over N.C. State — Walker reached double figures. In the other four contests, he’s shooting 27.7% from the field and hasn’t recorded more than four points.
Among the many things Cunningham taught Walker last season was that the only way to break out of a funk was to work through it.
“If I was lacking in something or I was missing shots or something, he’d have a little tweak after practice and we’d get some shots up,” Walker said. “Do this or do that.”
After just one year at OSU, Cunningham left behind lots of lessons like that one.
Guard Isaac Likekele said Cunningham showed him the importance of making his presence felt in every game. Boynton’s mind jumped to the humility of a player who picked up cones and ball bags after practice.
Walker calls the tidbits “little knickknacks”; things to hold onto as he works to carve out a larger role with the Cowboys. He’s got more of them than anybody. At home, Walker watched the work Cunningham put into his body, down to the plant-based diet he followed and came to understand how Cunningham saw the game of basketball through their conversations.
The pair of guards still speak often as Cunningham navigates his first season in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons. Back in Stillwater, Walker is working to take his next steps, operating with a road map left behind by his former, alien-curious roommate.
“I saw how much he put into where he wanted to be in life,” Walker said. “Seeing it all up close like I did made me go harder because I could see all that went into it.”