Knicks’ NBA Draft debate heats up after Cade Cunningham’s debut

Knicks' NBA Draft debate heats up after Cade Cunningham's debut

When ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla left the College Park Center in Arlington, Tex. Wednesday night after Oklahoma State point guard Cade
Cunningham’s college debut, he knew he had likely seen a future NBA All-Star. And yet Fraschilla wasn’t sure he saw the No. 1 pick in the draft.

That’s how spectacular the 2021 NBA Draft is shaping up and Knicks fans should pay attention. Knicks executives changed plans, showed patience and ultimately punted on 2020 free agency, putting them in No. 1 lottery seed contention.

“You know how much I love the draft,’’ Fraschilla told The Post via phone after calling the game. “All these guys do the mock drafts. Honestly, they really don’t know what they’re doing. If you’re an NBA GM, this is going to be a very deep draft at the top. Seven-to-10 kids I believe, late in the college basketball season, we’ll be discussing as who will the league taken as the No. 1 pick.”

And that’s after the 6-8 freshman Cunningham darted his way to a double-double in Wednesday’s nationally televised debut that had Fraschilla calling him a “Maserati.”

Cunningham, who Fraschilla likens to an old-school point guard, finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and three assists but had five turnovers in Oklahoma State’s 75-68 victory over Texas-Arlington. The ESPN cameras isolated on the 18-year-old much of the broadcast.

At one juncture, Cunningham sprinted coast-to coast with amazing grace, but coughed up the ball in the lane. Fraschilla screamed on air, “Here comes the Maserati and…he crashes it!”

The early mock drafts have Cunningham No. 1. Directly behind are two athletic wing studs who will never play a college game – 6-5 shooting guard Jalen Green and 6-7 forward Jonathan Kuminga.

Green and Kuminga chose the experimental G League Select Team, created for high school stars who prefer a paid NBA internship over the one-and-done college experience. The NBA is hashing out some form of a G League season but it won’t be the standard one because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Florida State forward Rich Barnes is also in Fraschilla’s early mix for No. 1, as is super-athletic 7-foot center Evan Mobley (USC) and 6-7 small forward Brandon Boston, who plays for Kentucky, which means the Knicks will have the most intel.

Michael VandeGarde, a Sixers college scout for 18 years who recently set up a new NBA-themed high-school scouting service, can’t say for sure either if Cunningham is No. 1.

“2021 is loaded,’’ said VandeGarde. “Loaded.”

Jalen Green is another potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft
Jalen Green is another potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA DraftIcon Sportswire via Getty Images

VandeGarde said Cunningham, Green, Kuminga and Mobley would’ve certainly been the No. 1 pick in last week’s 2020 NBA Draft if high schoolers were eligible.

“Could (Cade) be the No. 1 pick?,’’ Fraschilla, the former St. John’s and Manhattan coach, said.

“Absolutely. He’s going to be a very good pro. Does he do things beyond his years? Absolutely. What he’ll be is a potential triple-double guy in the NBA in a 48-minute game. But I don’t want to say after seeing after one college game, ‘yeah, it’s over. He’s No. 1.’”

VandeGarde is actually leaning slightly toward Green.

“Some of these 2021 kids are just freakish athletic,’’ VandeGarde said. “Jalen is listed at 6-5 which means he’s 6-4. He lives above the rim. He does NBA slam-dunk championship dunks in games — between the legs, around the back.’’

Fraschilla also loves Green for his “high motor’’ on both ends, calling him Auburn’s “Isaac Okoro with an offensive game.’’

Still, Green and Kuminga won’t get the exposure in a restructured G League campaign. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is adamant to showcase Green and Kuminga, another superior athlete. One scenario is the G League Select Team playing games against random pickup teams composed of the top-100 G league players in a bubble.

Cunningham, Mobley and Barnes will own the larger spotlight.

“He’s won everywhere,’’ Fraschilla said of Cunningham. “Winning basketball is an underrated attribute. The best thing about him besides his size and physical tools, he’s a winner, makes everyone around him better. Whether he’s drafted top-5 or 1, he’ll be better when you put good pieces around him. His strength is he amplifies other people’s strengths.”

The five turnovers, Fraschilla said, was more a function of Texas-Arlington packing the lane with five players. In the NBA, Cunningham will have way more lane space to dribble to the bucket.

Still, Cunningham scored 11 of the final 22 points in a close contest with the Cowboys hanging on for the close victory.

Because of COVID-19, only five NBA teams were permitted to watch as the crowd size was limited to 750 people in the 7,000-seat arena. Cunningham missed his first four shots before coming on to finish 7 of 16 (2 of 5 from 3-point range).

“He’s like an old-school point guard because he plays with the pace of a Walt Frazier,’’ Fraschilla said.

Fraschilla attended an Oklahoma State practice two weeks ago and saw  Cunningham’s intangibles. (NBA scouts currently can’t attend college practices, which is a huge disadvantage.)

“He has great emotional intelligence with his teammates,’’ Fraschilla said. “You can tell they love him because he’s got great team awareness. He huddled everyone up early (Wednesday) when they were losing and said “We’ll be fine.’’