The Freshmen with the Biggest Impact

There have been quite a few freshmen players who have turned heads around in college basketball during the shortened 2020-21 season. Names such as Jalen Suggs, Evan Mobley and Hunter Dickinson, just to name a few, have had an impressive impact on their respective programs. However, no freshman has had a bigger impact in college basketball as an individual player this season than Cade Cunningham, who plays for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Cunningham was a star in the making during his high school days when he played for the Montverde Academy in Florida, where he averaged 13.9 points, 6.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game while being named as the Gatorade Player of the Year in the 2019-20 season. That wasn’t his lone achievement last year, though, as he was named the Naismith Prep Player of the Year and the MaxPreps National Player of the Year while also being chosen as a McDonald's All-American. He also got selections to both the Jordan Brand Classic and the Nike Hoop Summit. With such an accomplished resume in high school, Cunningham was undoubtedly expected to make an impact at the college level.

Few expected him to be as dominant as he has looked this season, though. Cunningham has settled as one of the biggest stars in college basketball this season and accomplished something that’s not very common -- he has improved his numbers compared to what he did as a senior in high school. Through 22 games (21 starts), Cunningham is averaging 19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the field, 42.5 percent from three-point range and 85.4 percent from the charity stripe. 

Cunningham’s impressive season with Oklahoma State had led him to be chosen as a 021 Naismith Men's Player of the Year semifinals, alongside players such as Drew Timme and Corey Kispert (Gonzaga), Hunter Dickinson (Michigan), Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois), Luka Garza (Iowa), Jared Butler (Baylor), Quentin Grimes (Houston), Herbert Jones (Alabama) and Evan Mobley (USC). That’s a crowded and impressively-talented field, but Cunningham has a good shot at winning it due to his impressive performances for the Cowboys.

Perhaps the best example of what he’s accomplished this season lies in what he did against Oklahoma on Saturday -- the freshman had a double-double of 40 points and 11 rebounds. Despite being a first-year player, Cunningham is the undisputed leader of a Cowboys team that is peaking at the right time to five straight victories. The Cowboys might not be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they’re expected to be a factor in the race to the Final Four. That is if the NCAA allows Oklahoma State to play due to sanctions that were handed down over the summer. It would be a real shame to not make Oklahoma State a March Madness pick as they are playing well and have one of the best freshmen in the country. 

Cunningham is undoubtedly a big reason for that. And regardless of what happens with Oklahoma State this season, the freshman is expected to be a star in the next level as well, as many experts -- including Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report -- see him as the first overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.


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