When Cade Cunningham was just a freshman, there wasn’t talk of him being the potential No. 1 NBA draft pick. There wasn’t even talk of him being recruited.
The 5-star point guard from Montverde Academy in Montverde, Florida, was once upon a time a no-name freshman small forward at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas, who no one was recruiting.
Well, not no one.
Going into his freshman year, Cunningham and his team, which included Texas Tech guard Kyler Edwards, were getting prepped for the season. Cunningham hadn’t played a game yet, it was mostly conditioning workouts, but there were some pickup games going on.
Then OSU coach Mike Boynton took notice.
“I didn’t come in thinking I’d even be recruited, I was just a freshman,” Cunningham told reporters in a Zoom call Wednesday. “He came in, he watched me a couple of times. Then he walked up and just offered me. He was like, ‘I want to extend you a scholarship to Oklahoma State University.’ I was like, ‘What?’”
Brad Underwood, who was OSU’s head coach at the time, didn’t even know Boynton had offered Cunningham.
“It’s just a crazy story,” Cunningham said. “Coach Boynton, he believed in me so much early on, and I’m super thankful for that.”
That was the beginning. Now, four years later, it’s been something of a roller coaster. Since taking over as OSU’s head coach, Boynton has faced much adversity. And the postseason ban stemming from the Lamont Evans bribe scandal is only the latest of headaches for OSU.
But that penalty, which many have called harsh and unfair, had the college basketball wondering if Cunningham — and others on the roster — would transfer.
As soon as the program found out about the penalties, Boynton called every one of his players and told them the situation — candidly.
“There’s not a lot of coaches I could think of that would tell a recruit, ‘Do what you want to do, Imma help you if you want to leave,’” Cunningham said. “You’re not going to hear that from anyone else. That meant a whole lot to me because I knew he really cared about me as a person instead of just the player that I am.”
The way Boynton approached the situation simply stood out to Cunningham.
The first day Cunningham found out about the sanctions, emotions were running high. He thought he might want to want to explore other options..
But that only lasted a day.
After that first day, Cunningham knew who he was going to play for. He said a big part of that decision came down to how great of a basketball mind Boynton and the rest of staff possess.
“I feel like that’s the biggest thing that’ll help me as a player, it’s just surrounding myself around people that really know the game,” Cunningham said. “I feel like there’s still so much I could still accomplish, and all of my goals are still intact by staying at Oklahoma State.”
On the court, the decision made sense, but another important aspect of Cunningham’s decision was the type of person Boynton is.
“It would have been tough for me to go overseas and go play for a foreign coach or even the G League or anything, I just hadn’t built a connection with anybody like that,” Cunningham said. “Coach Boynton, I already had a great relationship with, and that’s who I wanted to play for.
Boynton’s high character has been well-documented over the past few years, and Cunningham appreciated how Boynton puts loyalty and the people around him over basketball — calling him a super genuine dude.
Cunningham said he appreciated having Boynton as the leader of this program and said that’s someone he can learn a lot from.
The coach was clearly a factor, but the teammates were also key. Cunningham has played AAU ball with Rondel Walker and Montreal Pena on the Texas Titans. Isaac Likekele, Avery Anderson and Chris Harris are all from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
That familiarity was prime to Cunningham’s decision. He said the sense of family among the team was apparent and genuine, which is so important to him.
It was a big part of why he committed to OSU in the first place over elite programs such as North Carolina and Kentucky.
After spending two years away from family at Montverde, Cunningham said he understood how important it is to be comfortable with your teammates and coaches.
“All those schools are great programs, and I feel like I could have been successful in all those schools,” Cunningham said. “But being comfortable and wanting to go to practice at 5 a.m. with these guys and being able to run suicides with guys that I’ve known for a long time and I know are going to have my back, I feel like all that stuff really makes a difference."