Fun-sized Auburn point guard Sharife Cooper missed time this past NCAA season, but he’s undeniably one of the most polarizing NBA Draft prospects.
The New York Knicks are out of the playoffs, and their second-most successful season in the last decade is officially over, which means it’s time to focus on something Knicks fans are more than a little familiar with: the draft!
This is the first year in a long time where the team’s fate won’t be determined by the bouncing ping-pong balls of Lady Luck, but with three picks in the top 32 and four total, the 2021 NBA Draft (to be held on July 29th) will still be of massive importance to the team as we advance. So, let’s take a look at one of the prospects that might interest Leon Rose, Scott Perry, and Walt Perrin.
If there’s one thing the Knicks’ five-game series against the Atlanta Hawks laid bare, it’s their desperate need for reliable point-guard play. Derrick Rose did an admirable job as a starter following the late yet welcomed banishment of Elfrid Payton from the rotation. Still, his promotion left the bench critically lacking in terms of players who could organize the offense and get other players easy shots. Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks did their best to fill in, but their strengths lie in creating shots for themselves, not others.
With Payton likely gone this summer and Rose a free agent, the team will be looking at point guards to bring in for the long term (even with Argentinian point guard Luca Vildoza).
Enter Auburn’s Sharife Cooper, the best passer in the draft.
Now that it is officially Draft SZN, I would like it if Sharife Cooper played for the Knicks pic.twitter.com/OQjsOACI17
— Mike Cortez 🇵🇷 (@CortezEra) June 3, 2021
Cooper played just 12 games this year, missing the beginning of the season due to an NCAA eligibility investigation and the final four games with an ankle injury. That small sample size helped contribute to his status as one of the most polarizing players in this year’s draft.
It’s not hard to see why. Cooper is a prospect whose highs and lows are readily apparent from when he steps on the floor. He’s an absolute wizard with the ball, but his outside shot was missing for much of his freshman season. He can get to the rim whenever he wants but makes even run-of-the-mill rim protectors look like Dikembe Mutombo. He genuinely tries on defense, but because of his size, it often doesn’t matter.
Let’s start with that last point.
There’s no denying that Sharife is tiny. Standing 6’1″—or at least, generously listed at 6’1″—and lacking a plus wingspan, Cooper is one of the smallest consensus first-round picks in recent years. This presents problems on both ends of the floor. Without length, it can be hard for him to get passes or shots off over defenders, and his shot contests on defense are relatively ineffective.
On the other hand, at 180 pounds, he enters the draft heavier than Ja Morant or Darius Garland, and he absolutely throws his weight around with the best of them. As far as tiny players go, he’s actually kind of huge.
the more i watch the more i learn sharife cooper is a bully guard, javonte smart probably has 4-5 inches and 40 pounds on rife but he puts him in the rim like he's jimmy butler pic.twitter.com/MqZtCnidHz
— Ben Pfeifer (suns wcf, hawks 1-2) (@Ben_Pfeifer_) June 2, 2021
Cooper isn’t a vertical athlete, but he’s incredibly quick with the ball in his hand, and he likes to use his barrel chest to power through defenders en route to the cup. While the efficacy of such plays is almost guaranteed to diminish against NBA-level athletes, the combination of his ability to get into the paint whenever he wants, the willingness to embrace contact, and his craft around the rim bode well for him eventually being a decent finisher even as a pro, even if he’s never a great one. He’s got deft touch and uses spin with either hand while also having a variety of up-and-under and wrong-footed releases that help him get shots off over, around, or below defenders’ arms.
Cooper loves to split double teams or go to a lethal hesitation move to get downhill, and when he does, he’s got a ton of weapons to choose from. I’d like to see more of Cooper as a pro is going to the floater more often. He doesn’t use it nearly as much as he should, but he’s got a nice touch on it when he does. If he can learn to leverage it similarly to how Trae Young does, it will open up driving and passing lanes in a major way. If I were Cooper’s agent or rookie coach, I’d assign him game tape of Young’s first-round series with the Knicks to learn as much as he can about how effective a weapon it can be.
One reason the floater would be such a useful weapon is that, despite his craftiness and willingness to get into the teeth of the defense (or maybe because of it), Cooper was absolutely demolished time after time at the rim. In his game against Kentucky, Cooper was blocked nine times. On the one hand, it shows an impressive level of grit and determination that he was undaunted and kept going to the basket, but on the other hand, talk about a block party.
Cooper gets blocked more than any prospect I’ve ever scouted by a MILE. And most of them are the kind of disrespectful, bone-rattling blocks that would make a lesser player kick the ball into the stands, take off his shoes, and walk home in the rain in disgrace.
But credit to ‘Rife; he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and tells the defense: “I can do this all day.” Which he can! Because the flip side is that Cooper is an absolute foul magnet. He averaged over 8.5 free throw attempts per game in his one year in college and converted on 82.5% of them—very similar numbers to Trae Young in college, for what it’s worth—and during his 10-game AAU run with Kentucky’s BJ Boston, he averaged a similar 8.2 attempts.
Cooper is more physical than Young but equally crafty in how he draws his fouls. The results speak for themselves: out of 12 games, Cooper shot double-digit free throws in six, including going 18-for-21 against Missouri. Between Quickley and Cooper, the Knicks could have one of the best foul-drawing backcourts in the league.
What makes Cooper really dangerous in the halfcourt is how he can adapt on the fly once he gets into the paint. He can take the tough layup, as seen above, but he’s a super quick processor as a playmaker too. He can dump the ball off to a big man or hit a cutter, but his favorite halfcourt pass is the kick-out. For someone as good at penetrating the defense as Cooper is, finding shooters is crucial, and Cooper was constantly doing so. However, Auburn’s personnel sometimes meant his efforts went unrewarded.
The video below is a collection of half-court passes from Cooper in which you see basically every pass in the book. Skips, lefty hooks, kick-outs, dump-offs, the works.
Cooper averaged 8.1 assists per game with his teammates, often leaving 5-to-10 wide-open looks on the table. If he gets to the level of an NBA starter, he seems like a lock to have at least a couple of seasons averaging double-digit assists, especially given his most fun and flashy tool, one we haven’t even discussed yet: the lob.
Auburn was filled with long, athletic wings, and Cooper routinely found them for thunderous alley-oops. Playing on a team with an elite lob threat like Mitchell Robinson, Cooper would be like a cat playing with a mouse. His ability to find lob threats both in transition and in the halfcourt is special for a 19-year-old.
Another area that Cooper could help the Knicks is in their running game. The Knicks, as has often been the case with them, were a slow team this year, despite having guys like Rose, R.J. Barrett, and Julius Randle, who love getting out and running. Cooper is a transition demon. He pushes the ball relentlessly in the pursuit of easy looks for himself or others and can turn even made baskets into semi-transition opportunities.
He also constantly looks for hit-ahead opportunities coming off a missed shot by the other team, throwing various passes to get his players in advantage situations. While someone like Jalen Suggs may have received more attention for his quarterback-style outlet passes, Sharife gets his guys out and running with the best of them.
Now we get to the hardest part of the Sharife Cooper evaluation: the shooting. One thing’s clear: whatever Cooper was doing this season, it didn’t work. He converted on just under 23% of his threes at Auburn, making just 13 over the course of 12 games. This is a problem for a small guard, and it’s the swing skill that will determine whether or not he can be a starter at the next level.
When you see him shoot, it’s not hard to see why he had so much trouble. Not only does he have an incredibly slow release, but he gets no lift and shoots with a bizarre and extreme lean-back posture, meaning he doesn’t get much power from his legs or his core and has to resort to basically catapulting the ball towards the rim. That’s a tough combination to find success with, especially when the release is so slow and low that defenders have no problem getting a hand up to contest it.
My guess is that the lean is a response to getting his shot blocked at lower levels and trying to raise the release point, but whatever team drafts, Cooper will need to spend some time reworking his mechanics to get a faster transfer of energy more repeatable motion.
On the other hand, there are clear, encouraging signs as well. Cooper was much more of a respectable shooter during the 2018–19 AAU season, where he shot 35% on 57 total attempts, per RealGM. That sample size sounds small, but it’s also (weirdly) the same number of attempts he had in college. 35% isn’t great by any means, but for someone with as many ways to hurt you as Cooper, being a league-average shooter would make him incredibly useful and raise his ceiling tremendously.
Another encouraging sign is Cooper’s comfortability getting into various shot types: step-backs, pull-ups, or catch-and-shoots. If the release can be sped up, the fact that Cooper can get into these kinds of shots, and is comfortable taking them, should allow him to become a higher-volume shooter without too much difficulty.
Sharife Cooper’s defense can be a bit of an adventure. With his size, there’s not much he can do a lot of the time. In Auburn’s game against LSU, freshman scoring machine Cam Thomas scored over the top of Cooper time after time, despite Cooper offering some solid, disciplined contests.
He also shoots himself in the foot at times, falling asleep or over-helping, or sometimes just giving up altogether and calling for a teammate to save him. He has trouble navigating screens and can be over-reliant on switches despite not always communicating his need for them.
But there are genuinely good moments, too, moments which give me hope that he could be better than someone like Trae on defense—not exactly a high bar. Still, again, at his size, if he can be better than “league-worst defender,” that’s massively helpful for his ability to stay on the floor. He’s generally a pretty vocal defender, especially when Auburn would put him in the middle of their zone (an experiment that had pretty mixed results), a position that allowed him to survey and call out rotations for the athletes surrounding him.
As is the case on offense, Cooper is impressively willing to sacrifice his body for the team. He routinely draws charges, and though some of those result from some pretty blatant flopping, some of them result from his exceptional court mapping and ability to get to his spots. He’s also willing to fight on-ball as best as his little arms will allow and funnel drivers into the waiting arms of his back-line defenders.
While he’s less likely to go up against like-sized guards at the next level, given his bulkiness and willingness to fight while defending the point of attack, there’s reason to hope in time, with proper instruction, he could turn himself into a not-terrible defensive guard. However, he will always be at a disadvantage.
Projection and Knicks Fit
Cooper needs to figure out the jump shot. If he can’t, it will be a struggle for him to find meaningful time in the league. But given his touch indicators and the general small-sample size, I’d be willing to risk it if I were a GM. The feel for the game, the mapping of the floor, and the ability to manipulate opposing teams are skills worth betting on.
To become a starting level point guard in the NBA, he’ll need some pretty big leaps in certain areas. But those areas are ones where I think leaps are achievable. Reworking a jump shot is a lot easier than teaching someone how to feel the game at an elite level. He’ll never be a good defender, but it’s possible for him not to be a god-awful one, especially if the Knicks were to sign certain high-end small point guards to mentor him this summer.
If the Knicks draft Sharife, I’d be willing to overpay the shit out of Lowry or CP3 (ideally on a frontloaded descending deal but that’s unlikely) to run the show for a couple years while they mentor Rife
— The Halfcourt Press (@THalfCourtPress) June 10, 2021
I think Sharife’s fit with the Knicks is pretty clear. The Knicks have many interesting guys right now, from Barrett to Randle to Robinson to Quickley, and even Obi Toppin, but the one type of player they don’t have is a waterbug guard who can penetrate defenses and make them pay for collapsing. Once again, the shooting concerns exist, but a team as defensively sound as the Knicks were is perfect for insulating him defensively, and New York will be in the market for shooters with or without Cooper.
Cooper may top out as a super high-end backup point guard if he can’t make the leaps he needs to. But if he hits, he has the potential to be one of the three-to-five best players in this year’s draft. It’s unclear if he’ll be there with the 19th or 21st pick, but it seems like those plugged into front offices expect that to be within his range. It’s a big swing, but if he’s still on the board when the Knicks are set to pick, it’s a swing worth taking.