After a COVID-19-impacted market found a majority of last season's rookies playing out the 2020-21 season without a sneaker deal, brands are now returning to aggressively sign top players heading into this week's draft. Nike had its eyes set on Cunningham, who starred at Nike-sponsored Oklahoma State University and has long had an affinity for the brand.
"More than anything, they show that athletes are more than just athletes," Cunningham told ESPN. "They really put the right message out for people to see. That was important to me. ... I felt like it was a perfect match for me."
Cunningham, a dynamic 6-foot-8 point guard who completed his lone freshman season as Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, is looking to build his marketing profile early on with Nike.
"We all can tell a Nike commercial as soon as they come on," he said. "Those things matter to me, and I want to be associated with a brand like that."
According to industry sources, Cunningham has landed the highest value shoe deal of his draft class. The deal was negotiated by Excel Sports Management.
Throughout the process, he also tested out sneakers from Puma, Li-Ning, Converse and Adidas during pre-draft workouts. During his rookie season, Nike plans to have Cunningham help lead its new "Greater Than" series, wearing player-exclusive editions of models like the GT Cut, GT Run and GT Jump.
Cunningham has also already agreed to endorsement deals in the plant-based food, energy drink, cryptocurrency, trading card, memorabilia and photo-sharing-app silos as well, which are expected to be announced in the weeks ahead.
"I definitely have been putting thought into it. I'm not playing basketball just for fun anymore," he said. "It's a business now, and that's the blessing of it. I'm happy that I've gotten to get to this point to where I can make money doing what I'm doing. Marketing myself, I want to be fully authentic with who I am. I don't want to take any marketing deals that don't match who I am."
Nike is currently worn by approximately 68% of the NBA and in the midst of a $1 billion, eight-year partnership agreement as the official league outfitter. The signing points to a commitment to continue signing top prospects and potential future faces of the league, with an extensive current roster of players and a lineup of five signature sneakers for the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Kyrie Irving.
To date, Cunningham has worked out for and met with only the Detroit Pistons, who are expected to select the 19-year-old with their first overall pick once the draft gets underway Thursday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).
"They're a great organization, got a lot of good things going for them. I think they're in the restoration period. I don't think they're rebuilding," Cunningham told local Detroit media after his visit. "They're just trying to restore what they got going on."
A scoring floor general, Cunningham has already drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Grant Hill from Pistons GM Troy Weaver, which he called "an honor for sure" and "more motivation." During his freshman season, Cunningham averaged 20 points per game while shooting 44% from the floor and 40% from 3. The Pistons anticipate adding Cunningham to a young core of Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey as foundational pieces.
"There's an argument to be made that Cunningham is the third-best top pick we've seen in the past decade, which would lead me to project him as an All-Star in his first two or three years in the NBA and a longtime All-NBA type of player," wrote ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz.
While the comparisons, projections and expectations may be lofty, all before he has even played in an official NBA game, Cunningham is embracing all that comes with being a potential top pick heading into this week's draft.
"It's something I've been looking forward to my whole life," he said. "I'm not going to anticipate anything or get my hopes up on anything too crazy. I'm going to go in with an open mind, and I feel good about what I've done to prepare myself for this moment. Once I hear my name called, I'm just going to be happy to be in that position and excited to see what happens moving forward."