It would be foolish to base the potential of a young player completely on his NBA Summer League performance. It wasn’t all that long ago when folks were freaking out about Trae Young’s poor shooting percentages at the Utah and Las Vegas events, and the Hawks star has turned out just fine.
However, NBA Summer League competition can offer a glimpse of what makes top prospects so intriguing — and that was certainly the case Tuesday night.
The top two selections from the 2021 NBA Draft, Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, matched up at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas and put their full talents on display. Green posted an efficient 25 points in the Rockets’ 111-91 win over the Pistons, and Cunningham did plenty to show why he was the No. 1 overall pick, totaling 20 points, four rebounds, three steals and two assists.
One specific play from that contest captured all of Cunningham’s incredible talents. Watch Cade go to work:
That sequence lasted less than 10 seconds, but Cunningham does so many good things in that short time. First, he baits Josh Christopher into a lazy pass by stepping toward Christopher but not fully committing. He stays between the ball and his man, never turning his back on Green.
Once Christopher picks up his dribble, Cunningham just has to poke the ball away, and he’s off to the races.
Once he reaches half court, Cunningham recognizes that he has only Green in front of him and Christopher and Sekou Doumbouya charging down the lane. Cunningham (6-7, 220 pounds) uses his strength against the leaner Green (6-6, 186 pounds), driving him backward and creating enough space to attack the rim.
Cunningham could have attempted to finish through contact — which happens often at NBA Summer League games with players looking to prove themselves — but he knows there is a better shot available. He draws Christopher away from Doumbouya, then flips the ball off to Doumbouya for the easy bucket.
Watching the replay, you can almost see Cunningham thinking a step ahead. He knows the passing lane will be available as soon as he leaves his feet.
The former Oklahoma State star wasn’t perfect, of course. He had four turnovers, the same amount he averaged in college, and there were occasional mental lapses defensively.
But NBA Summer League is far from a perfect environment, and this is Cunningham’s first taste of professional action. He is just 19 years old and will only continue to grow as he familiarizes himself with his teammates and the nuances of the NBA game.
He is already making these kinds of plays. Imagine what will happen when he really knows what he’s doing.