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Shaedon Sharpe talks NBA Draft future, decisions at Kentucky

Shaedon Sharpe shoots around before the University of Kentucky hosts Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

Shaedon Sharpe shoots around before the University of Kentucky hosts Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

rhermens@herald-leader.com

Speaking for the first time — really, ever — to a large group of reporters, former No. 1 basketball recruit and would-be Kentucky player Shaedon Sharpe talked mostly about his future in a Friday conference call ahead of next week’s NBA Draft.

Sharpe did, however, reflect briefly on the past few months. Asked by the Herald-Leader if he had any regrets about his unorthodox stint in Lexington, the 19-year-old seemed OK with the way the situation worked out.

“Like I said before, everything happens for a reason,” Sharpe said. “So I really don’t regret (not) playing. I’m working out for NBA teams now. So I guess I did something right.”

Indeed, Sharpe has spent the past few weeks giving NBA decision-makers some up-close looks at his potential. He specifically said he had already worked out for six teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs — plus a workout with the Indiana Pacers set for Monday.

Sharpe said he thought those sessions went well. He also put no cap on his expectations of him moving forward.

“I see myself being one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball,” he said. “Playing at the highest level, just getting after it, competing. One of my goals coming in as a rookie is being Rookie of the Year. That’s one of the goals. And then, All-Star. And later on, Hall of Fame.”

Sharpe was ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class before he decided to enroll in classes at Kentucky a semester early, joining the Wildcats during the middle of the season in January.

After some back and forth on whether he would play right away, Sharpe ultimately sat out the remainder of the 2021-22 season. He practiced with the team and went through pregame warmups on the Rupp Arena court but did not appear in any games.

It was a decision that didn’t sit well with a vocal portion of the UK fan base, though it wasn’t clear throughout the process who was calling the shots on Sharpe’s status.

Sharpe did not partake in any outside interviews during his time on campus, Calipari gave varying reports on his readiness to play in actual games right away, and the player’s basketball mentor and longtime coach/trainer, Dwayne Washington, left open the possibility while also saying Sharpe was in no “rush” to skip any steps in his progress.

On Friday afternoon, Sharpe touched on the process behind the decision not to play.

“I did talk to Cal about it, my coach, trainer, even my parents,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, it was my decision to not play.”

For much of Sharpe’s time with the program, Kentucky Coach John Calipari expressed publicly that he fully expected the star guard to return to Lexington for the 2022-23 campaign and become a key component of the Wildcats’ roster. At the same time, there were plenty of rumblings in recruiting circles that Sharpe would test the NBA Draft waters and, most likely, keep his name from him in the 2022 draft.

Obviously, that’s what happened, with Sharpe announcing the day before the draft withdrawal deadline that he would leave Kentucky without ever playing a game for the Wildcats. He said Friday that his thought process while in Lexington was focused on getting better.

“So I was just in the gym every day, working out,” he said. “Really, for me, whatever happened would happen, and I’d be ready for it.”

What’s next for Sharpe, Kentucky?

Sharpe has been projected as a possible top-five pick in this year’s NBA Draft, which is headed by Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith — widely expected to be, in some order, the top three selections. After that, it’s anybody’s guess, and it will take only one team willing to chance a high draft pick on the unproven Sharpe for him to go off the board early.

His unique circumstances — basically jumping from high school to the NBA with no actual basketball in between — have been the subject of myriad draft thinkpieces over the past couple of months.

On one hand, there’s the overwhelming potential that led him to become the No. 1 recruit in his class. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he ends up as the best player in this draft class.

On the other, Sharpe hasn’t played an organized game of basketball in front of NBA decision-makers since last summer’s Nike Peach Jam, which pitted him against high school competition. His peers of him in this draft class are coming off full seasons of college basketball or stints in professional leagues.

I have acknowledged as much in Friday’s session with reporters.

“I feel like there is a mystery,” Sharpe said. “Just because I haven’t played for about a year now. The last game was high school, so I feel like there is curiosity and mystery for me. But, like I said before, I’m just in the gym. Getting ready.”

Among the national mock drafts that have been updated over the past couple of days, The Sporting News projects Sharpe to go No. 5 overall, with ESPN placing him in the No. 8 spot, and CBS Sports putting him at No. 10.

Meanwhile, Kentucky will go into the 2022-23 season with a Sharpe-sized hole in the lineup.

Instead of featuring a lottery-pick talent projected to produce right away — Calipari said Sharpe could be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, remember — UK’s coaches will need to figure out how their backcourt rotation is going to work.

Starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler is back, and he’ll be joined by five-star combo guard Cason Wallace, a top-10 recruit in the 2022 class. There’s no replacing Sharpe’s level of sheer talent, but Kentucky did bring in transfer shooting guard Antonio Reeves — Illinois State’s top scorer last season — to provide some offensive punch on the perimeter. Sharp-shooting guard CJ Fredrick, a transfer from Iowa who sat out last season due to injury, is also expected to be healthy and make his UK debut this season.

There’s plenty of talent and versatility in this Kentucky backcourt — along with Chris Livingston and Jacob Toppin, two promising forwards who can play on the perimeter — but a player like Sharpe could have taken the Wildcats’ roster to another level.

With the current Cats now on campus, preparing for next season, Sharpe is traveling the country and meeting with NBA teams. The next step will be Thursday night’s draft. And a few months from now, Sharpe will finally take the court.

“For sure, I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I don’t play — it’s hard, because, being a basketball player, I feel like you want to get out there, support your guys, play with your teammates and everything, compete.

“But I don’t think it’s really going to be too hard for me. Just because, I’ve been competing for a long time now.”

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football, horse racing and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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