HAMPTON, Va. — Whenever the Mac Irvin Fire takes the court during the Nike EYBL, the cream of the college coaching crop will be circling the court.
That’s what happens when two of the top five recruits in the Class of 2014 — No. 1 Jahlil Okafor and No. 5 Cliff Alexander — are on their roster. On Saturday, Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Tom Crean, Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, along with coaches from dozens of other high-major programs, were among the faces in the crowd.
But with Okafor battling a high-ankle sprain that has kept him off the floor for both of the April live period weekends, that has left room for other players on the roster to step up with the best of the best watching, and Josh Cunningham took full advantage.
A 6-fo0t-7 small forward with explosive athleticism and three-point range, Cunningham has averaged 17.0 points and 4.0 boards through three games, but he saved his best performance for last. On Saturday night, he went toe-to-toe with five-star recruit Theo Pinson, scoring 12 of the Fire’s first 18 points and finishing with 26 on 11-15 shooting, hitting 3-6 from three and adding seven boards.
Cunningham is a Chicago native and a product of Morgan Park (HS). He currently holds offers from Oklahoma, DePaul, Nebraska and Bradley, but with more performances like this, some of the big boys will come calling. He’s already heard from Michigan State in recent days.
“I like the way they play,” said the No. 100 recruit, according to Rivals, “because I play hard.”
The fact that he does play hard is one of the reasons that Cunningham is enticing as a prospect. He puts in the effort on the defensive end of the floor, he has the size and the athleticism to be a major factor at the highest level in college, and he already has a three-point stroke; he’s 5-10 from deep on the weekend. He’s got the physical tools that scouts and recruiters love to see, but the right mindset and on-court attitude is just as important. “I want to win bad,” Cunningham said. “[My coach] always tells me to play hard because I could be something special.”
You can’t teach effort. You can’t make a player care. You can, however, develop an all-around game, and that’s the next step for Cunningham.
“I hope to improve on my dribbling, to handle the ball and help my teammates get the ball [up the floor],” he said.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.