Jared Cunningham averaged 17.9 points per game as a junior at Oregon State, a school that lost in the semifinals of a 2012 postseason tournament called the CBI and hasn’t sent a single player to the NBA Draft in 14 years. He barely registered as a blip on my (admittedly not all-encompassing) radar before Wednesday night, when ESPN’s Andy Katz reported that the Celtics are interested in acquiring a third first-round pick to select the 6-foot-5 combo guard.
Now I’m intrigued. Not 100 percent sold, but intrigued. He’s a long, wiry comb-guard who thrives in transition, already shows the makings of a perimeter stopper, and has the potential to become a long-range specialist (though he’s not nearly there yet). He’s athletic enough to do this and this, he reportedly possesses a 42-inch vertical, and he has the nickname Flight, which he said he got as a freshman, when “nobody really knew me,” by “just playing my hardest and dunking on everybody.” Clearly, he lacks confidence.
Gary Payton said of Cunningham, “I like his heart because it reminds me of me.” Most pro scouts think Cunningham will be a shooting guard in the NBA, and one told David Aldridge, “I do like (Cunningham), but he’s not ready.” Another talent evaluator had this to say of Cunningham’s positionlessness:
“He’s trying to get himself prepared to play point guard on our level,” a Western Conference scout said. “I think he passes the ball OK, but I don’t think he’s got that point guard ability where he sees plays, where he sees a guy get open three or four steps before it happens. I don’t think he has that. And he’s not a shooter; he’s a slasher/driver, which he’ll be able to do at our level.”
If it sounds like several of Cunningham’s traits (excessive athleticism, attentive defense, preference for the open court, ‘tweener label, not entirely polished) mirror Avery Bradley’s, that’s because they do. If the Celtics are indeed interested in Cunningham like the rumors say, Ainge likely envisions a Bradley-esque career path for the best Oregon State Beaver of the past decade and a half. Not that we know how Bradley’s career ends or even have any good idea where it’s headed, but Cunningham sounds like a similar project — his fast-twitch muscles lend themselves to NBA success so long as he continues to work on refinement of his skills. He even has Bradley’s light-skinned, baby-faced look.
If you ask Cunningham, he’s a mixture of Shannon Brown’s athleticism, Monta Ellis’ quickness and Bradley’s defensive presence. That doesn’t sound so bad, and the comparisons also speak to a level of confidence which Bradley certainly didn’t have coming out of Texas. That confidence continued to reveal itself on Cunningham’s blog, where he wrote that he worked out for the Golden State Warriors with Jorge Gutierrez of California. “I had a little bit of anger in me for him getting Pac-12 Player of the Year,” wrote Cunningham. “So I wanted to go hard. I felt real good about that workout.”
Should Cunningham ever develop into a combo-guard who can handle both backcourt positions, he would provide an impressive complement to the Bradley-Rajon Rondo pairing which could populate the Boston backcourt for the next decade. Imagine a three-headed monster of pressure defense, transition mastery and 40-inch verticals. But mostly, pressure defense. Bradley and Rondo have already separated themselves as a premier ball-pressure tandem, and Cunningham off the bench could allow the Celtics to continue unleashing havoc on opponents even when one of the starters takes a breather.
From what I can tell, Cunningham’s exactly the type of player Ainge targets. He’s NBA-ready (or reasonably close to it) as an individual defender and his offensive ceiling lends itself to big dreams. He’s not likely to completely whiff as a prospect because he’s so athletic and seems mature enough to improve with time, and there’s a chance — with the proper level of circumstance and nurturing — he becomes a home run.
At the end of the first round, acquiring Cunningham would be a low-risk, high-reward proposition the likes of which Ainge adores.