NBA Draft

Cooper an Underrated Commodity in 2021 Draft

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Sharife Cooper, my favorite prospect to watch this year, is one of the more underrated prospects in the 2021 NBA Draft.

He comes from a prodigious basketball family, including his sister Te’a Cooper who’s been hooping for the Los Angeles Sparks. Sharife dominated his high-school days in Georgia, stacking his trophy case at showcases. His teams were winning almost automatically when he was on the floor.

Much like Jalen Johnson, Cooper had a frustrating year due to outside circumstances. He was unable to suit up for Auburn due to eligibility questions and only managed 12 games before going down with an ankle injury. Cooper was easily Auburn’s best player while on the floor and asserted himself as the engine of the offense.

The above picture summarizes why teams are scared of Cooper as a prospect. The most generous measurements will have a hard time putting above six-feet tall. That, combined with a perceived lack of athleticism, has capped his draft stock. Yet with these physical concerns, the tumult surrounding his eligibility and unfamiliarity with teammates, Cooper thrived.

He excelled as a passer and constant rim presence, with creativity, balance and skill in spades. He may be the truest point guard in the draft and is the second best behind Cade Cunningham. Though he has his limitations, players with the kind of skillset and basketball IQ that Sly Cooper possesses are ones you should bet on.

Offense

Sharife was the best playmaker in the NCAA in his limited time at Auburn, racking up 97 assists in 12 games. One could argue he was being held back by the nature of Auburn’s offense. They played with pace and got up plenty of shots, but the loss of their second playmaker Justin Powell before Cooper’s arrival handicapped their efficiency. What resulted was an offense entirely dependent on Cooper’s playmaking abilities in the halfcourt.

And somehow, it worked for him.

His passing ability is truly special, most reminiscent of LaMelo Ball and Ja Morant in recent drafts. His feel in all situations is stunning, using body language and eyes to hide where he wants the ball to go. Cooper dimes with either hand, makes excellent outlet and off-the-dribble passes while being a smooth operator in the pick-and-roll. The threat of his shots from distance means defenses have to respect him in high pick-and-rolls. This gives Sharife even more space to find weak points in the defense.

His creation of favorable angles for others and himself is sublime. Sharife’s handle not only gets him into great spots but puts opponents into bad ones, baiting tons of reach-in fouls. He seems to be able to command his handle from tight to loose at times to make defenders think they have a chance at the ball. His superior handle, change of speeds and direction made Sharife an absolute force around the rim.

Even as an undersized player without outstanding bulk, he drew a ridiculous .560 free-throw rate. He was a master at securing contact before going up for shots at the rim. Making 83% of his 8.6 freebies per game made him impossible to keep down as a scorer, even when the shots weren’t falling. Though Cooper only made a hair under 48% of his looks at the rim, the defensive attention he was commanding at the rim meant he was going up into walls.

If you need evidence of Cooper’s one-man army attitude around the cup, look no further:

His finishing package, ability to find space and draw contact indicate Cooper will be a plus scorer and more around the rim despite his stature. Cooper shows a profound ability to maintain balance, conserve momentum and contort for finishes. Changing speeds, mixing hands and directions to keep defenders off balance plays at any level. Most prospects out-physical their opponents in college and have to learn to outsmart; Cooper is the opposite.

Where Cooper’s true offensive ceiling lies depends on his jump shot. His release is reminiscent of Chris Paul, and not necessarily in a good way. Paul uses a somewhat unorthodox release, but has technical excellence in his base and hands.

Cooper’s numbers at the line and in AAU combined with an easy release are a good sign, but he struggled mightily beyond the arc in college. He has aggression with range and missed long a lot. It’s possible his 23% mark from deep was an aberration for an otherwise solid shooter. If he can be at least average on the catch and off the dribble, the rest of his game will be made much easier. With or without a lethal jumper, Cooper should be able to captain an efficient offense.

Defense

Though Auburn’s alignment on defense didn’t do Cooper many favors, it was a struggle overall. His shorter stature makes it an uphill battle, and his decision making and technique need to be great to hold his own on defense. But there are signs Cooper can avoid becoming a complete liability.

The bad is very bad at times. When forced to make 2v1 decisions on the perimeter, he’d often close out too hard and foul unnecessarily. He’s unexceptional at keeping players in front of him and putting himself in good positions despite the smarts and lateral quickness he shows on offense. Sharife lacks the burst to get up high on closeouts, and even with perfect form and timing can’t fully interfere with most wings.

There’s nothing he can do about getting taller or longer. What he can do is avoid mistakes that will get him in the doghouse. Teams are only going to give him so much of a leash if he keeps overcommitting on the perimeter and creating more problems. Staying within himself and letting his hustle and smarts make impact plays can make him an adequate defender. Smaller players have become better on the less glamorous end of the floor.

Draft Stock

How teams view Cooper in the draft will be very interesting. His status as a more traditional point guard may appeal to certain teams. Though the draft is loaded on talent, it’s short on playmaking point guards in the upper reaches of the draft. If a team has the ability to give him command of the offense for stretches, his value can be realized.

I have Sly ranked seventh on my board. It has been proven players like him can be a dominant force. Trae Young is the engine that makes a playoff team go at only 22 years old. If Cooper does indeed have the craft and agility to translate his offensive ability to the NBA, he could be the driver of his own offense at the next level.

It seems unlikely Cooper finds himself picked in the lottery due to size concerns. For this he is a prime target at the end of the teens and early twenties. Teams like the Knicks, Rockets and Thunder will be picking for the second time at that stage of the draft. They all should be targeting guards that can drive play with ample opportunity on the depth chart. There’s no player in which I have more confidence that they will smash their draft slot and deliver huge value.

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About Charlie Cummings

Warriors writer born and raised in the Bay Area. University of Denver graduate currently living in Denver

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