Mike Boynton’s initial trips to Bowie High School in the fall of 2016 were not to see Cade Cunningham.
Cade was just a freshman at the Arlington high school. Boynton was there as an assistant at Oklahoma State recruiting Kyler Edwards, who ended up at Texas Tech. It was on a trip to see Edwards where Boynton noticed another tall kid, who Boynton assumed was 17 years old. He asked Bowie coach Allen Gratts about Cade, and the trajectory of Oklahoma State basketball changed.
“I really thought he was a senior, to be perfectly honest, when I first saw him,” Boynton, now OSU’s head coach, said last November. “I went to his coach and asked him, ‘Hey, what’s going on with that kid. Is he going to sign late this year?’ Something like that, thinking that if he was, he was about 6-5 at the time. If he was a senior, I was probably gonna try to help him go to maybe a Southland-level school or something like that. When his coach told me he was a freshman, I immediately knew that I needed to go kinda outside the box and do something I did not do very often as an assistant which was offer him a scholarship immediately.”
Again, Boynton was just an assistant at Oklahoma State under first-year coach Brad Underwood. Boynton offered Cade a scholarship without Underwood’s blessing.
“Looking back, when I talked to Coach Underwood afterward, Coach Underwood was even like, ‘Well, I guess Coach Boynton really likes you. I guess we’re gonna recruit you,’” Cade said. “It’s just a crazy story, but Coach Boynton, he believed in me so much early on. I’m super thankful for that.”
Cade was the first freshman to ever start for Gratts at Bowie. He was just the second freshman to even make the varsity team.
OSU played in the Maui Invitational that season. Boynton said after the tournament was done, he took a redeye flight from Hawaii to DFW to make it to one of Cade’s games. There was a bigger high school event nearby, and Boynton said that Thanksgiving weekend he was one of about 12 people at Cade’s game.
Cannen Cunningham, Cade’s brother and an assistant coach at OSU, said that first offer gave Cade the seal of a high-major player. Cade isn’t a guy who puts together jaw-dropping highlight reels. He boasts a more sophisticated style of play. It’s something Boynton saw early, luckily for OSU.
“One of the things that was hard to evaluate for Cade early, it’s probably something that just gets more appreciated the higher level you go, he’s not like a ball-dominant super-athlete,” Boynton said. “He doesn’t go out there and score 50 points. You have to really understand basketball to appreciate his value to the game, and his value is in winning. His value is in making his teammates better. His value is in knowing that he doesn’t have to take 25 shots to be a really effective player.
“His athleticism has caught up to his skill, but early on, his athleticism just wasn’t there. He’s still not a great athlete. He’s a really good athlete at 6-8, but his athleticism still has some growing to do. He’s got more room to grow.”
The Deliberate Path to Being No. 1
Before the Bowie High School basketball team starts its on-court work in a given season, coach Allen Gratts puts his team through a test that requires discipline and work ethic.
The team has to complete a “perfect day.” The players have to show up to school wearing their student ID. They can’t be tardy. If they’re out on the track, they have to run their best times. If they’re jumping rope, no one can mess up. It has to be perfect, and only then can the Volunteers start their on-court practices.
Gratts said getting the perfect day doesn’t always come quickly. It could take five days; it could take 12.
With colleges starting to look into him, an underclassman Cade Cunningham asked Gratts, “’Well coach, what are we going to do when I’m the No. 1 player in the country? Are we still gonna be doing perfect day?”
“I kinda looked at him and said, ‘Yeah,’” Gratts told PFB. “It was because all these coaches were going to be coming in to see him. I said, ‘Yeah, we will still be doing perfect day. Cade, if you’re the No. 1 player in the country, they’re already going to know you’re able to play. They don’t have to watch you play.’”
Cade’s road to being the No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class was a deliberate one, and it had to be, given where it started.
In this modern age of social media, it isn’t too often a kid comes from as far behind as Cade did to get the top spot in the 247Sports’ composite rankings.
Cade entered the rankings in August of his sophomore year at No. 35. When the rankings updated the next month, he fell to No. 44. For reference, Jalen Green, who finished second in the 2020 rankings, entered the rankings at No. 4 that September and was No. 2 when Cade was at 44.
James Wiseman, the top finisher in the 2019 class, entered the ranking at No. 3 before finishing as No. 1. RJ Barrett, the top finisher in 2018, also made his rankings debut at No. 3.
The summer after his junior year, Cade led his AAU team to a Peach Jam championship and was named the Nike EYBL’s MVP, but he still wasn’t No. 1. At Montverde Academy in Florida, where Cade played his junior and senior seasons of high school ball, Cade and the Eagles were decimating their national schedule, but it looked at times if that still wasn’t going to be enough.
On Jan. 31, the Eagles were 23-0, and Cade finally made his 43-spot climb to the top of his class.
“Every time the rankings came out, we felt like they owed it to us that we were No. 1,” Cannen told PFB. “Like, what do you mean we’re not No. 1 yet? For the last few of them that came out, he was still No. 3 and still No. 2, and we’re pulling our hair out like, ‘Man, what else do we gotta do?’ The day it finally comes out, ‘Cade Cunningham No. 1 player in the country,’ it was one of those moments where you want to enjoy it, and you don’t want to be the Grinch that tries to snap him out of it and say, ‘Alright we gotta get to work.’ We wanted to let it set in for a second.”
There’s a saying “it takes a village.” Cade and his village have been strategic in getting him to this point.
He left Bowie for Montverde to help him climb up recruiting rankings and develop into the best player he could be.
He announced his commitment to Oklahoma State moments before the first major tournaments of the 2019-20 college basketball season tipped off. Broadcasters were mentioning him with the college basketball world watching the games.
Without analytics on what the G League could do with its new path-to-pro program, Cade turned down the “quick money” so he could be featured on TV more at OSU, further raising his notoriety to the average college basketball fan while boosting his draft stock.
It’s all a part of a bigger scheme. It’s a simple goal-setting formula, but it isn’t easy to execute.
“It’s been very intentional the whole way coming,” Cannen said. “You can only plan so far ahead, obviously, but it’s been very intentional. I always knew Cade was going to be the first player in the first NBA Draft that he would be available in. It was a pipe dream at one point, but it becomes more and more realistic as you focus intention on it.
“From the time that he showed a little bit of promise as an elementary school kid, we took it very serious. He’s always played on very competitive teams. My cousin Ashton [Bennings], who became a trainer at a young age, works with a lot of NBA players. So, he had thorough instruction. I played for the best coach of all time, Larry Brown, and literally just poured everything that I got from him into Cade the best I can.”
The plan was already in action when Boynton entered Cade’s life in 2016, but now Boynton has become a part of the machine to get Cade where he wants to be.
“There’s a certain level of pride associated with being the best,” Boynton said in January. “I’m not calling myself a prophet by any means, but I saw this four years ago with this kid. I’m really glad that he’s gonna be a part of our program. I’m happy that this is ultimately playing itself out from a national standpoint. But at the end of the day, that’s just the beginning for him. He’s got big, big goals, and he believes that we can help him get to where he ultimately wants to go.”
The coach speak in this situation would be to say that the rankings didn’t matter, but they did.
Being the No. 1 player in his high school class was a big milemarker, but it wasn’t the destination.
“It was very important to him,” Cannen said. “I don’t know what he’s said publicly, but it was very important to him. Honestly, I feel like that’s been a huge reason he’s grown at the rate he has. He sets tangible goals for himself, and he attacks them. It’s nice to say that you don’t care about those things, but you gotta have things that drive you. You gotta have something to chase, something that’s pushing you. He had something to chase, and now everybody’s chasing him.
“He’s feeling the expectations. Everybody’s saying he’s gonna be great this year, and I 100 percent believe he will. Now he’s being pushed by those behind him. We’ve seen all through the NBA playoffs great players who weren’t drafted high. I tell Cade all the time, ‘We don’t know who those guys are right now, but they’re coming. You gotta be prepared for anybody you compete against.’ The rankings were important to him. On the same level, draft position is important to him now.”
The Cannen Factor
Cannen was driving home to Dallas from New Orleans thinking his college coaching career had taken the next step.
It was 2019, and Cannen had just finished his first season as Tulane’s video coordinator. The Green Wave’s season didn’t go as planned. Tulane went 4-27 that season, and Cannen said he figured there could be changes on Mike Dunleavy’s staff.
On his ride home, Cannen got a call from Dunleavy.
“I want you to be an assistant next year,” Dunleavy told Cannen.
It was a promotion for the young coach. Before his time at Tulane, Cannen coached at Highland Park Middle School in Dallas, while also coaching Cade’s 16U AAU team, Drive Nation. Cannen was flying up the ranks.
“I’m ecstatic,” Cannen said about the phone call. “But, I gotta be mindful of the situation he’s in. He’s gonna have to cut ties with one of his coaches that he brought on. So, I’m like, ‘Coach, I’m super excited. I appreciate it. I’m ready to help us turn it around next year.’ I continue my drive back home. I don’t tell anybody. It’s not a done deal yet, so I’m just trying to stay quiet about it.”
The next day, Cannen worked out Cade, who was home from Montverde Academy. Everything seemed perfect, but things changed quickly.
“I get an ESPN update: ‘Mike Dunleavy’s been fired,’” Cannen said. “So all of that just went out the window. Now I’m jobless.”
There’s a notion that Cannen Cunningham was always supposed to get an assistant job at Oklahoma State to secure Cade’s commitment. How else could a video coordinator turn into a high-major assistant? That wasn’t the case.
College coaches network at the Final Four. Cannen went to Minneapolis a few weeks after Dunleavy was fired.
It was there where Cannen formally met Boynton for the first time. By this time, Cade was already a big-time recruit. He was the No. 8 player in his class.
“We had a great conversation then,” Cannen said. “He had done his homework on me but just wanted to get his own feel on it. I think the conversation went well. He felt good soon after about offering me the job. I received a couple other job offers, but pretty early on, I felt really good about Mike and what he had brewing in Stillwater.”
Was Cannen being an assistant part of the reason Cade ended up in Stillwater? Of course, but it wasn’t some grandiose scheme from the start.
Boynton said he told Cade that if the only reason he was coming to OSU was because of his brother, then Boynton didn’t want Cade to come.
“I’m not gonna discount that as a nonfactor,” Boynton said after Cade signed his letter of intent last November. “My job in terms of our staff is to hire people who we think can help us do the things that we want to do. One of an assistant coach’s primary jobs is to recruit. There’s this notion that you shouldn’t hire someone like that, and I say, every assistant coach is hired to get players. So, I don’t understand why then it would be a problem when there’s more of a chance you can actually get a good player.
“But, if we don’t have the relationship established for three years, I’m not sure it matters. If we don’t recruit him for two years before the other schools are involved, then it’s hard to get over the hump. I’m not gonna say that his brother’s hiring didn’t help. I like to think that our relationship was a factor as well and that he believes he can come here and accomplish all of his goals regardless.”
Cannen’s hiring factored into what brought Cade to Stillwater, but it wasn’t the only factor.
“My brother has been one of my best friends in life,” Cade said. “He’s been my biggest life coach besides my parents. Being around him for another year was super important to me. I feel like him being there was just the cherry on top, but I feel like the whole program as a whole was the foundation and everything else in between. That’s what won me over, and then having my brother being here, it made it almost a no-brainer for me.”
Recruiting in Crunch Time
Cade got John Calipari’s and Roy Williams’ best shots, and he still chose Boynton.
In his senior year of high school, Cade took all five of his allotted official visits: Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Washington. The three big contenders seemed like Oklahoma State, Kentucky and North Carolina.
He visited Kentucky for Big Blue Madness. He visited North Carolina for Late Night with Roy. And he came to Stillwater during the McNeese State football game. One of those things is not like the other.
Calipari, Kentucky’s coach, made quite the pitch in his speech at Big Blue Madness. With packed Rupp Arena going nuts and Cade in attendance, Calipari stood at a podium and pointed out that in the past 10 seasons, Kentucky had won a national title, had 38 NBA Draft picks and had seven of the 22 players who received max NBA contracts. It was quite the sales pitch.
“That’s the fine line that we were walking,” Cannen said. “As his big brother, I had to make sure that he got to experience every school’s best shot. That actually came at the expense of us, honestly. But it was impressive that we were playing McNeese State and the football stadium is sold out. It pulled its own weight. It was just kind of a normal weekend for us, but it was impressive on that note. And also, we were the first one’s to go, so we got to set the tone. He had never been on an official visit. It was a unique experience in itself.”
It says a lot about Cade that he was able to look past the glitz and glamor of two college basketball bluebloods and find enjoyment in his relaxing weekend in Stillwater.
“All five of the schools that I visited were great programs and have a lot of great things going, but the thing that was different for me was Coach Boynton was so family oriented,” Cade said. “The team, when I was on my visit, we all went to his house, and the team knew every inch of the house like they’ve been there 1,000 times. On your visits, you can tell when a team is uncomfortable like, ‘We don’t ever do this. Why are we making this time so special for this recruit?’ You can tell. The team was acting like, ‘This is what we do, and I guess Cade is here this time.’ That meant a whole lot to me. It’s just the little stuff that’s super important to me. It’s not too far from my house. I live in Big 12 country, so my family can come watch a whole lot of games.”
Through having Cannen on his staff, Boynton knew Cade wanted to sign in the early period. With NCAA recruiting rules, this gave the Pokes an advantage.
“You get seven opportunities to get in front of a kid until he signs,” Boynton said. “If you go through all seven in the fall, and he doesn’t sign in the fall, you’re screwed because you gotta try to recruit him the rest of the year without being able to see him. But again, inside baseball, I knew he was signing early, so I used all seven.”
On his last visit to see Cade, Boynton said Cade told him he thought he was ready to go public with his decision to commit to OSU. It wasn’t as simple as putting it out then and there. Cade had Montverde’s media arts teacher Jim Seaney put together his commitment video.
On Nov. 5, Boynton knew the announcement was coming. He wanted to be home when it happened to share it with his son, Ace. Boynton said Ace loves watching basketball highlights on YouTube, and he had taken a particular liking to Cade. Boynton filmed Ace’s reaction.
“Something that doesn’t really go noticed in recruitment, I kinda experienced this being out at Montverde for two years and not really have any family around, I got to really build and get close with my team and my coaches, but I think being comfortable is so important with how you play on the court as well as going to practices,” Cade said. “I felt like being at Oklahoma State, I was going to be more comfortable here than at any of the other schools that I was considering. All of those schools are great programs. And I feel like I could’ve been successful at all those schools, but being comfortable and wanting to go to practice at 5 a.m. with these guys and wanting to run suicides with guys that I’ve known for a long time, that I know are going to have my back, I feel like all that stuff really makes the difference.
“Having teammates like this and having such a staff like the one I have now, I feel like all that played a big role into it. I’m happy with my decision.”
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