D.J. confident, believes in himself

D.J. Cunningham has NBA potential.

The former Waterford and UNC Asheville basketball standout, who signed a pro contract last month to compete with Limburg United in the Belgium-Ethias League in Europe next season, believes he does – and that’s all that really matters.

Belief in oneself.

“Yes, I could play in the NBA,” Cunningham said. “That’s my ultimate goal. I know I need to improve and work hard on my game. But I could do it.”

Never mind that Cunningham wasn’t drafted by any NBA team in June. He will get an opportunity to impress NBA scouts when he suits up for Limburg United.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “Not many people get an opportunity (to play pro basketball).”

Ah, but the NBA. There are 30 teams in the league with a dozen roster spots available on each club. Doing the math, that’s 360 players at any one time. It’s not impossible to compete at that high a level, but it’s close to it. The chances of getting hit by lightning or bitten by a shark might be better.

Cunningham still thinks he has a shot.

Cunningham actually has come a long ways from Waterford, a small, rural high school in southeast Ohio. As a Wildcat, he starred on the hardwood, and got an opportunity to play in NCAA Division I at UNC Asheville in North Carolina.

He made the most of his time at UNC Asheville, and competed against the best of Ohio State, Kentucky, Duke, and Auburn to name but a few big-time basketball programs. When the Bulldogs played the Buckeyes, he outplayed Jared Sullinger, who now plays for the Boston Celtics.

As a senior Bulldog, Cunningham averaged nearly a double-double, and finished fourth in the nation in blocked shots. Yes, fourth, and that’s a pretty eye-catching stat.

Later, he was one of 64 seniors in the country invited to play in the prestigious Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Virginia. Mind you, ex-NBA players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Dave Cowens, John Stockton, and Rick Barry all competed in past PIT events.

Cunningham unfortunately had to pass due to an injury, and that may have hurt him some at NBA draft time.

He’s healthy now and rearing to go.

Cunningham has got a lot of things going for him. He’s young at 23. He’s big at 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, and plays above the rim. He’s also strong and athletic. And, he’s got game and an excellent work ethic. This summer, he’s been conditioning and lifting in the weight room.

In some ways, Cunningham reminds you a little bit of soon-to-be 36-year-old Chris “Birdman” Andersen – but without the tattoos and Mohawk haircut. Andersen of course has been on the Miami Heat roster for the past couple of years.

Both are nearly identical in height and weight and known for their trademark hustle. Both also like to swat shots at the defensive end of the floor.

Andersen was initially also undrafted by the NBA and got his start in pro ball by playing overseas in China. Later, he signed with the Denver Nuggets, and the rest, as they say, is history, including a championship ring with LeBron and the Heat in 2012-13.

So an NBA career is a distinct possibility, if a player is hungry and determined enough to want it.

Cunningham has taken that all-important first step in his professional basketball career by signing with Limburg United.

The rest is up to him.

Ron Johnston is the Marietta Times sports editor, and can be reached at 376-5441 or at rjohnston@mariettatimes.com