Louisville basketball: Christen Cunningham deserves a shot at the NBA

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 12: Christen Cunningham #1 of the Louisville Cardinals passes the ball against the Lipscomb Bisons at KFC YUM! Center on December 12, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 12: Christen Cunningham #1 of the Louisville Cardinals passes the ball against the Lipscomb Bisons at KFC YUM! Center on December 12, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Former Louisville basketball graduate transfer Christen Cunningham likely won’t be selected in tonight’s draft, but he deserves a shot at making an NBA roster.

There are some players whose intangibles make them worthy of recognition, even if their natural talent level doesn’t reach as far as others. Leadership, control of an offense and defense, basketball IQ – all of these skills can’t be coached, players either have them or they don’t. Without Christen Cunningham at the helm in 2018-19, Louisville basketball wouldn’t have been able to achieve at the level they did.

Heading into his first season as the head coach of Louisville, Chris Mack knew his roster was depleted and needed help. With just seven scholarship players at the time and the effects of the FBI scandal still lingering, Mack did the best he could to bring in difference makers at the last minute.

The first player to commit was Christen Cunningham, a name that some in the state of Kentucky might have been familar with but one that most Louisville fans didn’t know. After three seasons at Samford, where he became the school’s all-time leading passer, Cunningham left as a graduate transfer looking for an opportunity to prove he was overlooked his first go-round in recruiting – and that he belonged on the biggest stage of them all.

That’s exactly what he did as the floor general for a Louisville team that was expected to be a basement dweller in the ACC (remember, Louisville was picked 11th in the ACC in the preseason of 2018).

Throughout the season Cunningham was the steady hand that the team needed. He was huge in helping the Cards pull off big-time upsets against Michigan State and UNC – and at one point led the ACC in assists. Due to his high IQ, control, and big-time playmaking and shotmaking – Cunningham quickly became the leader of the Louisville team.

Chris Mack put it this way,

"“Guys like him don’t grow on trees. He just does everything that you ever ask. If you tell him, ‘Hey, you need to play on one foot tomorrow,’ he’ll play on one foot. If you ask him to shoot left-handed, he’ll shoot left-handed.”"

While 10.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 3.9 assists don’t scream NBA – Cunningham showed that he at least deserves a chance to once again prove people wrong.

When you look at Cunningham on paper an NBA career doesn’t seem likely.

At 6’2, 190-pounds, he doesn’t necessarily have ideal size for the point guard role at the next level. While he is shifty and crafty when it comes to attacking the paint and getting to the basket, his speed and quickness don’t resemble what you might see f you turn on the NBA Network.

His defense is fine for the college game, but could he guard the likes of Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, or even some of the NBA backup guards? Probably not a high level.

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He took and made plenty of big shots and never showed a hesitancy to score when needed, but does a player who averaged just 10 points per game excite NBA GM’s?

All of those things matter and they are the biggest reasons why we haven’t heard a lot about any NBA teams having interest in Cunningham leading up to the draft – but it doesn’t tell the full story of who CC really is as a player.

Louisville needed elite level passing, CC did it. Most notably he dished out 12 assists against Duke, 11 against Georgia Tech, and 9 in a marquee road win against North Carolina. Mack needed someone to step up and help carry the scoring load, Christen was on it. He scored 15 plus points on nine different occasions, including 17 in a big win over a ranked NC State team, 18 in a game nearly blown against Clemson, and 22 against Minnesota, in a last-ditch comeback attempt.

Point being, whatever Chris Mack and the Louisville basketball program needed, CC provided and did it carrying himself as a consummate pro every single day. That’s exactly what teams need on the back end of their benches at the next level. If you peruse around the 30 NBA rosters you’ll see names like Matthew Dellevadova, Tim Frazier, TJ McConnell, Ryan Arcidicano, Ish Smith and others who do very similar things to Christen Cunningham and have made long NBA careers out of it, despite being limited in some facets of the game.

What CC lacks in elite athleticism and length, he makes up for in leadership and big shot making, especially in the mid-range. Where Cunningham struggles in one-on-one isolation ball, he thrives in making the right decision in the pick-and-roll.


As a 47 percent shooter from the field and 34 percent from three, Cunningham has the ability to make shots as needed and while he may not be able to get you a bucket on his own all the time, his high IQ allows him to pick and chose where he goes and when he scores, a skill that is highly valued at the next level.

I know for a fact that Christen Cunningham won’t be drafted tonight. On the other hand, I know that if one NBA team gives him a chance to prove himself, 10/10 he’s going to do that and it shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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Whether it’s in the NBA, the G League, or even overseas, whoever lands Christen Cunningham will be getting a player who has the skills every coach looks for. A  “run-through-the-wall type of guy,” and a player who recognizes what a team needs and give them that times 100.