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Column: Cade Cunningham and Isaac Likekele will flourish next to each other

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OSU MBB vs. No. 24 Texas Tech 021520-6751.jpg

OSU guard Isaac Likekele dribbles during the Oklahoma State vs. No. 24 Texas Tech men's basketball game on Saturday, February 15, 2020 at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater.

Nov. 5, 2019 — the day Oklahoma State fans rejoiced in happiness. 

The pieces were coming together. Potential No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham out of Montverde Academy became the centerpiece of what eventually became a top-5 OSU recruiting class that rivals as one of, if not the school’s best ever.

But as the season went on, the notion that “Cade isn’t a shooter” arose, which led some people to question the fit in the backcourt between Cunningham and All-Big 12 honorable mention Isaac Likekele.

It’s just not that simple.

 

Breaking down Cunningham’s game

The first thing we have to do is take a look into Cunningham’s game and what makes him so special. And that begins with dispelling the belief that Cunningham can’t shoot. 

Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you he’s an elite shooter, but he’s much better from deep than people realize.

Cunningham’s shooting mechanics are sound with a high release point and a natural shooting motion. That allows him to be a solid 3-point shooter who’s capable of hitting from deep if/when teams give him space. Just turn on a Montverde game and you’ll see.

He’s an underrated shooter, but that isn’t the reason people are clamoring over him. 

The 6-foot-7 point guard’s feel for the game is off the charts. His IQ is the engine of what makes him such a tantalizing talent.

The first trait you notice is the passing. Oh my god, the passing.

Cunningham’s vision is simply elite. He sees the whole court and then some. His playmaking ability is special — he can find anyone and hit them from so many difficult angles.

He makes one-handed passes effortlessly, he makes savvy pocket passes and has the strength to make tough cross-court passes, which is not easy to do, but when you can, it opens up the court even more.

It’s honestly next-level playmaking — Cunningham uses eye discipline and body manipulation to get the defense out of position and open up passing lanes. He’ll make the defense think he’s doing one thing, then do something completely different.

And when his team’s in transition, Cunningham can grab a rebound and throw a pinpoint outlet pass..

Cunningham is extremely unselfish. He’s always looking for his teammates, ready to make the right play, but that shouldn’t take away from his scoring prowess.

As a scorer, Cunningham is lethal at the rim. His strength and skill allow him to score in traffic and finish through contact with ease.

But to score at the rim, you need to be able to get past your defender and get in the paint, which Cunningham can certainly do.

While he’s not an elite athlete, he’s a solid one. He understands his weaknesses and maximizes his strength. Cunningham mixes athleticism with tremendous body control and strength to get to the rim 

He’s a maestro in the pick-and-roll game. Cunningham has an excellent pace to his game — he knows when to speed up, when to slow down, how to operate 

Which is where the highlights come from. When he feels an opening, Cunningham bursts to the rim for those gaudy drunks, he bursts in transition and goes coast-to-coast for a fastbreak slam.

He’s undoubtedly a superstar. And with many superstars, the defensive intensity is often lagging behind.

That’s most certainly not the case here. 

Cunningham constantly picks up his man at halfcourt. And he doesn’t just pressure them lightly to slow down their pace, he hounds and harasses them. He forces mistakes and bad decisions. 

With a 7-foot wingspan, Cunningham has the physical tools to excel on defense, but he’s just a competitive defender. He’s constantly working on that side of the ball. 

And his IQ is once again aiding him here. Cunningham understands switches so well, he knows when/how to rotate and provide weak side help if needed. 

Cunningham provides you the full package. He can score all three levels, he’s a two-way threat and he’s going to be a perfect fit on OSU’s roster.

 

Here’s why it works

Likekele and Cunningham aren’t strangers. They’re from the same city, they’ve won a gold medal together. Now the two are set to share a backcourt together.

We’re entering an era of positionless basketball — versatile players are at a premium.

Cunningham might be a point guard now, but many people forget he played small forward before his junior year. 

Why is that important? It means he understands how to move without the ball, how to play within the flow of an offense 

And it’s not just presumptuous, you see it in the games. For such a ball-dominant player, Cunningham still thrives on catch-and-shoot opportunities. When he runs off screens, albeit rarely, it’s on time and fluid. 

Even just standing at the perimeter, he understands how to make subtle movements to get himself open, which speaks to his feel for the game.

We talked about Cunningham’s unselfishness, and Likekele is equally unselfish.  

For both of these excellent playmakers, it’s more than just the passing — it’s the willingness to adapt to the situation

If one of them calls a play, hands the ball to a teammate who’s “on fire,” then takes themselves out of the play, they’ll be content with that because it’s the right play.

Sounds simple, right? But in an era where stats are so important, how many point guards would rather pick up an assist than hand the ball off and take themselves out of a play?

With these two guys, you have two point guards out on the floor. But that’s an advantage more than a handicap. You have two guys to push the ball in transition, two guys who can control the pace, two guys who can make a play when you need it.

Like Cunningham, Likekele is someone who gives you versatility. Likekele came in as a true combo guard. He has those shooting guard skills, and we see it on the hardwood.

Likekele can move well without the ball, he comes off dribble handoffs and continues in stride. He can even post up small guards and work out of the low block — another advantage for those two-PG lineups.

He has a lot of qualities of a prototypical shooting guard — minus the shooting.

There’s no way to get around that. That’s something Likekele will have to develop. But who’s to say he hasn’t?

We saw Likekele last season hit midrange jumpers when teams gave him space. Now he’ll have the chance to extend his range over the offseason.

But let’s not forget, OSU should have some improved shooting with the additions of knockdown shooters Donovan Williams and Ferron Flavors Jr., paired with promising second-year guys like Keylan Boone and Chris Harris.

The reality is, even if Likekele doesn’t develop a shot, even if Cunningham isn’t a deadly shooter, these guys are way too talented.

Let’s say theoretically Likekele penetrates into the paint, gets Cunnigham’s defender to move just a few feet, then passes to Cunningham. That’s enough leverage to allow Cunningham to work off a dribble drive and explode to the rim.

Then on defense, these two will be a terror. Cunningham can lock down 1-3 and maybe even power forwards. Likekele has already proven to be a menace on that side of the ball. This backcourt is going to cause some mayhem on defense.

Fit is so important in sports. So often, talent is thrown together and people forget about how it’ll all fit together. This backcourt doesn’t belong in that category. 

This tandem is going to thrive.

sports.ed@ocolly.com