KJ Cunningham finds, stays in right spot to lead Weber State men’s basketball success
When KJ Cunningham returned to Weber State’s starting lineup on Dec. 19, 2022 — his first start in nearly three years — there was no way to tell exactly how much frustration and doubt he’d passed through to get to that moment.
As it so happened, the night of Cunningham’s return to the lineup as the starting point guard was the same night Weber State’s turnaround became less of a hope and more of a reality this season — the night the Wildcats upset Utah State by holding the Aggies to six points in the first 10 minutes of the second half to rally to a 75-72 win.
Cunningham scored what was then a career-high 11 points, knocking down three 3s. But that game, Cunningham’s impact and the season turnaround (Weber started 2-7 but is 9-4 since) is about the other end of the floor.
“Hearing my city be called and my last name be called, there’s a lot in that moment of being called a starter,” Cunningham said of being introduced in a starting lineup before a game. “But it’s also a weight being called a starter because I have to produce and do a lot to stay in that spot. Just because I’ve got it doesn’t mean it can’t be taken away. So that’s why I play defense.”
By efficiency rating, Weber State’s defense has risen from the bottom 25 nationally to No. 125 (of 363 teams). Entering Saturday’s road game at Idaho State, WSU is second in the Big Sky in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Cunningham is known as a player who always knows where to be, almost always makes the right decisions and has helped mentor players young and old through his four seasons at Weber State.
“Even though he’s not overly tall, he’s a good post defender so if he does get switched, he can guard in the post. He’s a good on-ball defender,” WSU head coach Eric Duft said. “And where he really excels is off the ball. He’s always in the right spot, always making the right play. Very rarely when you’re watching film after a game can you find defensive mistakes he’s made … He sees the game very clearly and gets himself in the right spot time after time.”
Cunningham is praised for his team-first attitude and approach.
“He’s one of the smartest players we have on our team, and one of the most consistent competitors. We’ve got several guys like that, but I think people appreciate how team-oriented he is,” Duft said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him caring about a stat sheet.
“He’s just always there, competes, does the right thing, and it’s easy to sometimes take that for granted — but we never want to do that. He’s really bought into Weber State and our culture here … he just shows up with a smile on his face ready to compete.”
The 6-foot-2 guard has secured his spot as a key to Weber State’s success this season but, despite his consistent presence and effort, getting here was not a straight road from point A to point B.
He learned how to see the game and take responsibility for the whole floor as a point guard — “I’m short, so I’m already limited in some things,” he said — from his father, a longtime high school assistant in Texas who was hired as a head coach this school year.
Once at Weber State in 2019, Cunningham found himself starting games (14 of his 31 that season as a freshman). His contributions were solid, and he said he learned a lot from Jerrick Harding (and by guarding Harding).
“I kind of saw I could be a good player for this team but I also held myself back by not doing certain things off the court. My work ethic wasn’t as top-tier as it is now,” Cunningham said. “I was just getting into the college life instead of being a basketball player.”
The next year, Weber State recruited transfers Isiah Brown and Sigu Sisoho Jawara to play guard. Cunningham was given a specific role and, while limited, he excelled at it: play dogged defense and knock down corner 3s. He shot 43% from behind the arc on limited opportunities in 15.8 minutes per game.
But then his third year came, the 2021-22 season. Cunningham injured his ankles several times and, when he did get opportunities on the court, he didn’t cash them in, shooting 19% while averaging just 6.7 minutes in 21 appearances.
“My junior year was my worst year ever, mentally and physically. I couldn’t stay on the court,” he said.
That pushed Cunningham into what he called a “dark mindset” that led to lots of questions, including thoughts about transferring down or giving up the sport.
“I’m doing everything I’m asked, I’m sitting out, going to therapy and treatment, I’m being a good person, a great teammate … so that made my mind go to where I wasn’t sure I wanted to play basketball anymore if that’s how it’s going to be,” Cunningham said. “I had to do a lot of soul-searching, a lot of praying, talking to my family.”
But Cunningham credits those around him with keeping him moving forward. First, his mother.
“She was like ‘you’re going to stay there, you’re going to get healthy, do everything you need to do and you’re going to help them win games next year,'” he said. “So she was my rock, to get past all my hurting.”
His girlfriend pushed him to keep going to class and physical therapy, and helped line up people who could help him recover mentally and physically.
Cunningham credited teammates Koby McEwen, JJ Overton and Zahir Porter, too.
“They were just like just ‘stay positive, you’re the positivity to our team, you help us win games,'” he said.
And, of course, now-head coach Duft.
Duft was key, Cunningham said, in learning to embrace changing roles. Cunningham arrived on campus after a different assistant who recruited him left. With a shared faith background, Duft invited Cunningham to church.
“He wanted to connect on that level, through God, see where my mind is, see if I’m going to be consistent,” Cunningham said.
He says Duft pushed him day and night on the court as a freshman, then helped him begin locking into the ability to make the right plays consistently and embrace changing roles on the team.
Cunningham said Duft also helped him see how he could get to a place this summer where he could stay on the court and be an available, positive impact on the team.
“For four years, he’s just been like that guardian person,” Cunningham said. “I was just happy for him to be the coach because we’ve been through a lot.
“After our loss to Eastern Washington, he texted me and was like, ‘I love competing with you.’ That’s something I’ll always be grateful for, he wants to fight for this like I do, and that’s what you want from a coach is someone who fights with you and will be down for you.”
So Cunningham got to work in the weight room, on the court and in the classroom, too, where he says he’s pushed through a lot of “I don’t want to’s” as well.
“Having a degree for when I’m done with basketball, that’s what’s driving me,” said Cunningham, a professional sales major approaching graduation. “Even if you don’t like something, you’ve got to go through it. You can’t run away from your challenges.”
In his prelude to returning to the starting lineup, Cunningham played 29 minutes in a 29-point blowout win at Cal Poly, scoring eight points and dishing four assists after starting point guard Keith Dinwiddie Jr. went down with, of all things, an ankle injury. Cunningham’s opportunity came the same way it was damaged last season and now he can help someone else in those shoes, he says.
Since then, Cunningham is averaging 7.8 points per game, shooting 38% from 3 and helping anchor the second-best defense in the Big Sky. (He was quick to credit Dyson Koehler and Dillon Jones for taking big strides as defenders, too.)
Cunningham matched his career-high of 11 points in a blowout of Portland State, then scored 12 in a win at Idaho in which he shot 5 of 5 overall and 2 of 2 from deep. Duft sees Cunningham’s impact growing as the season hits the home stretch.
Cunningham, the oldest of seven siblings and step-siblings, sees himself graduating — “I can’t wait to walk that stage” — and returning for a fifth season to make a run at longtime teammate Michal Kozak’s career mark for most games played at Weber State. (Cunningham is approaching career game No. 100 with about 10 games left this season; Kozak played in 134 games.)
“I’m coming back and rocking for next year and help lead next year’s team too. We’ve got to get a ring before I leave here, that’s something we have to do,” Cunningham said.