In a suddenly plentiful sea of terrific shooting guard prospects, Jared Cunningham has come to camp as any other rookie, looking to make his mark. The Mavericks’ only rookie who was a first-round pick this summer, he will need to show some real promise to crack a crowded lineup.
Cunningham actually being drafted at all is a huge deal for Oregon State. Up until that time the Beavers held the the unfortunate title of being the major-conference team that has gone the longest without a player getting drafted by and NBA team. Cunningham’s selection by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round brought that streak to an end.
As a junior, his third season on a weak Oregon State team, Cunningham averaged 17.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.53 steals per game. He led the Pac-12 in steals per game for the second consecutive season, and also finished ninth in the country. He was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team and the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team and for the second straight season named to the Pac-12 All-Tournament team He chose to forego his senior season and in April, Jared declared for the 2012 NBA Draft.
Selected with the 24th overall pick by the Cleveland, his draft rights were then traded with Jae Crowder and Bernard James to the Dallas Mavericks for Tyler Zeller and Kelenna Azubuike in the packaged deal that brought in all three of the Mavericks current rookies other than long shot Josh Akognon who has been playing overseas for three years.
Cunningham is another possibility in a group of combo guards, adding another wrinkle to what looks to be a season in which Rick Carlisle will have a tremendous amount of flexibility. Carlisle has made a point of highlighting he likes players who can play multiple positions and at the shooting guard position this year he’s going to be blessed with several 2s who can also play the point and others who can play small forward.
Cunningham is a slightly undersized shooting guard who can play some point guard as well, although his ball handling needs some improvement. Like another surprise prospect, Josh Akognon, Cunningham’s ability to penetrate is somewhat reminiscent of J. J. Barea but adds some amazing athletic prowess that enables him to play above the rim despite his size. He has a good first step and excellent quickness in the open floor and his penetration allowed him to take good shots in college converting 66% of his field goal attempts in spite of not always getting all the way to the rim and sometimes settling for tough floaters. Also unlike Barea, he needs some work on his midrange and particularly pull-up jumpers. In spite of a sometimes appearing to avoid contact he travels to the foul line frequently and has potential for even more.
Carlisle also has the advantage this year of numerous players with a defensive mindset and early indications are that this season will have a real focus on defense. Cunningham himself was named the Pac-12 all-defensive first team, despite playing on the conference’s fourth worst defense and is an adept thief, ranking #1 in steals last season among all prospects
His average size and frame might make it difficult at times to keep up with some of the bigger and more physical shooting guards he’ll encounter in the NBA, but his tenacity works in his favor.
Cunningham had the misfortune of injuring his hamstring earlier this year so he didn’t participate in the summer league and so we haven’t had much of a look at what how he might do against NBA-level competition. Healthy coming into camp, he also didn’t make it into the first game against Aldo Berlin so his status is still up in the air.
With the age on the frontline and early preseason injuries to Chris Kaman and Brandan Wright and the Mavericks’ current depth seemingly tilted toward the backcourt, I’m sensing a need to use some of the surplus talent at the shooting guard spot to free up some space for another big man, either via trade or assigning a guard to the D-League. Cunningham clearly has potential and this is a developing story that definitely needs more time to reach a conclusion.