Cade Cunningham sure looked like a future NBA No. 1 draft pick throughout this past season at Oklahoma State, where his fluid game, scoring ability and passing — all in a 6-foot-8, 220-pound package — helped him earn All-America recognition as a freshman.
So it was no surprise when the Detroit Pistons opened the draft Thursday night in New York by selecting Cunningham. And it was the start of multiple teams using high picks on playmakers with size, including Florida State forward Scottie Barnes and Australian teenager Josh Giddey climbing a bit higher than expected as top-six selections.
It comes at a time when the game has evolved to a more position-free flow, making players like Barnes, Cunningham and Giddey more valuable than ever with their ability to roam all over the court.
Cunningham had been widely expected to be the first name called in New York, though Pistons general manager Troy Weaver wouldn't reveal plans earlier this week and said the team would look at every scenario, including trades. In the end, Detroit stuck with the 19-year-old mentioned as a potential top pick before ever stepping foot on the Oklahoma State campus.
The point guard from Arlington, Texas, lived up to expectations when he averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists for the Cowboys with a game that allowed him to hit from 3-point range, score off the dribble or find teammates out of traps.
"It's still pretty surreal to me," Cunningham said. "I know how much responsibility comes with being the No. 1 pick. I know how much responsibility a city will put on the guy that they take No. 1. I'm more than excited to take on those tasks and try to deliver to the city of Detroit."
Barnes had risen in mock drafts in recent weeks but offered the first surprise of the night by going to the Toronto Raptors with the No. 4 pick ahead of Gonzaga freshman point guard Jalen Suggs. Barnes is a 6-8 forward who ran the Seminoles' offense and has the capability to be an elite defender with his long arms and ability to chase smaller ball handlers on the perimeter.
That's why Barnes said he felt he could "fit right in doing different things" with the Raptors, who are two years removed from the franchise's lone NBA title.
"A lot of what we like is his versatility," Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. "He'll rebound it, he can guard, he can switch and guard multiple positions and he's big enough to guard bigs down inside. He's big enough to rebound with bigs. And we like to get out and go with the guys who are grabbing the rebound a lot."
Two picks later, the Oklahoma City Thunder grabbed Giddey, who was considered a potential lottery pick as a 6-8 floor leader known for his passing touch. He had played in Australia's National Basketball League with an all-around game (averages of 10.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.2 assists) and has been part of the NBA Academy program designed to develop elite international prospects.
"It was really something I wanted to be a part of and kind of start from the bottom and move our way up in the league," Giddey said. "It's a great young team, and I can't wait to get down there and get started."
The draft included numerous trades, including one set to send All-Star guard Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards to the Los Angeles Lakers in the biggest move of the night.
But it started with Cunningham, who attended the draft wearing a dark suit, shirt and tie with sparkles on his collars and cuffs. When the pick was announced, Cunningham kissed 2-year-old daughter Riley, sitting on his lap, then hugged family members and took the stage alongside league commissioner Adam Silver to don a blue Pistons hat.
The first player in Oklahoma State history to be picked No. 1 overall, Cunningham joins a franchise that has won 20 games for two straight seasons and hasn't finished better than .500 for five straight years.
Houston followed at No. 2 by grabbing preps-to-pros teenager Jalen Green, who bypassed college basketball to play in the G League. The 6-foot-6 Green averaged 17.9 points on 46% shooting in 15 games this past season, showing off high-flying dunks, a willingness to attack the rim and a promising shooting touch.
Now he's part of Houston's rebuilding project after James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last year. The Rockets entered the night with three first-round picks after having a league-low 17 wins.
"They're going to say it's a great choice because the goals I have for myself," Green said. "I plan on reaching them."
Next up was Southern California freshman big man Evan Mobley, who went to the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 3. The 7-footer has potential as a mobile big man with length and the versatility to switch on switches. He swept Pac-12 individual honors while ranking as one of the nation's top shot blockers and helped the Trojans reach an NCAA regional final for the first time in 20 years.
Suggs and G League forward Jonathan Kuminga were the other players considered to be in the draft's top tier. Suggs went fifth to the Orlando Magic and Kuminga went seventh to the Golden State Warriors.
Michigan forward Franz Wagner (Orlando), point guard Davion Mitchell (Sacramento Kings) of NCAA champion Baylor and Stanford forward Ziaire Williams rounded out the top 10. The Memphis Grizzlies picked up Williams, 19, through a draft-week deal with the New Orleans Pelicans, who made the selection for the Grizzlies via a deal that won't be completed until Aug. 6 under NBA rules.
The Grizzlies were slated to pick 17th but moved up by sending center Jonas Valanciunas and 2021 draft picks (No. 17 and No. 51) to New Orleans for Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe and a pair of 2021 picks (No. 10 and No. 40) along with a top-10 protected 2022 first-round pick.
Memphis added Santi Aldama, a 6-11 post out of Loyola-Maryland, with the final pick of the first round at No. 30 in a draft night trade with the Utah Jazz, who made the selection. The Grizzlies sent their second-round pick (No. 40) and two future second-round picks in exchange.
The Atlanta Hawks, picking 20th, chose 19-year-old forward Jalen Johnson, who played for Duke as a freshman but announced in mid-February that he would skip the rest of the season to make sure he was healthy as he turned his attention to his NBA future.
With their second-round pick, No. 48 overall, the Hawks selected Auburn point guard Sharife Cooper, who will compete for a spot as Trae Young's backup. Cooper, from McEachern High School in the Atlanta area, averaged 20.2 points and 8.1 assists as a freshman at Auburn.
Two guards who spent their lone college season at Tennessee were taken in the first round: Keon Johnson went 21st overall as the first pick of the night for the Los Angeles Clippers, while Jaden Springer was taken seven spots later by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Alabama also had two players picked as guard Joshua Primo went 12th to the San Antonio Spurs and forward Herbert Jones was taken by the Pelicans in the second round at No. 35 overall.
There also was a tribute to Terrence Clarke, a freshman guard at Kentucky who died after an April car crash after declaring for the draft. Silver announced Clarke as an honorary draft pick midway through the first round, bringing Clarke's mother, sister and brother to the stage.