Back in September, we previewed the 23rd pick in the 2012 draft, guard Jared Cunningham. With Dallas' season finished earlier than usual and a long summer ahead, we'll break down the Dallas roster and try to ascertain a baseline for performance going forward.
A quick recap:
Originally holding the 17th selection in the draft, Dallas traded back with Cleveland(sending away Kelenna Azubuike in the process, and just after we'd all learned to spell his name), netting the 23rd, 33rd and 34th picks. Oregon State Junior Jared Cunningham was the first of that trio taken, and it would probably not be entirely unfair to say the choice was something of a surprise. Cunningham was pegged by most draft "experts" as a bubble-first rounder, and for Dallas Cunningham represented duplicity, being yet another athletic combo guard with questions about his jumpshot.
At the Summer League, we saw Jae Crowder impress with an improved three point stroke, and Bernard James show that he was athletic enough to compete with his youngers. Cunningham, unfortunately, was not on the floor, nursing a hamstring injury. This probably should have been the first bad sign.
Yikes. And the D League numbers aren't too great, either.
YEAR TEAM G GS MPG FG% 3P% FT% OFF DEF RPG APG SPG BPG TO PF PPG
His season ended early as he was shut down with tendinitis in his knee, making his rookie year, on the whole, a bit of a disappointment.
How much the knee and hamstring problems were bothering him throughout the year we can't know, but the optimist would probably say that it might explain some of Cunningham's struggles in the D-League, where most first round picks dominate. It is a relatively small sample size, but Cunningham clearly had an awful go at it shooting the ball, something I'm going to assume was an area of emphasis for him there. If there's a place where guys like Cunningham should be encouraged to keep shooting even when it's not falling, it's the D-League, so the hope will be that some of those bricks will turn into makes going forward.
One thing Jared has done well, both at the college and D-League level, is draw fouls. He averaged over seven free throws a game his last two years at OSU, and close to the same for the Texas Legends. This will be a very useful skill if he can carry it over to the NBA. Cunningham has a lightning quick first step, which along with his height and slender frame helped him earn a few Russell Westbrook comparisons coming out of school. He's able to get in front of his defender consistently. Now he just needs to be able to put the ball in the hoop once he does.
After the draft, Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle indicated that the view Cunningham as a point guard in the longterm. Progress on that front has been slow. Cunningham did improve his assist-to-turnover ratio(slightly) in his 15 games with the Legends over his time in college, but he clearly has a long way to go if he's going to play that position at the highest level.
What to expect going forward:
Cunningham's year was a wash, but one can hope he gained something by being around the coaching staff for a few months. Rick Carlisle is noted for his one on one time with players, taking a direct, personal interest in helping with skill development. The pair should get to spend some time together in training camp, because he has a lot of developing to do.
Of course, the first thing Cunningham absolutely has to do is get healthy. I expect that, if healthy, he'll play in the Summer League, where we should be able to get our first good look at him. Then, the real work begins.
Cunningham is owed a little over $1.2 million next year, a small sum that shouldn't stand in the way of any free agent pursuits or trade bargaining. As of this moment, predicting exactly what kind of playing time Jared Cunningham might receive is next to impossible(we'll save that for next season's player previews!), but it is clear that J-Flight has a long uphill climb to have a career as cool as his nickname.
When Cunningham was drafted, I tried to look at comparable players in terms of size, skillset, and college production. The player I thought best matched him was Shannon Brown, another 6'4 combo guard who left college as a junior and was a late first round pick. Look at Jared's numbers against Shannon's. Pretty similar.
Brown, of course, washed out initially with the Cavs, and had a bit of a journey as he bounced around a couple of NBA teams and spent a lot of time in the D-League before he finally blossomed with the Lakers(not coincidentally, it happened when he finally started to hit from outside). It is possible that Cunningham could face a similar path. Brown is no-All Star, but he is a solid third guard, who can defend multiple positions and is versatile enough to fit different lineups.