Shaedon Sharpe isn’t playing this year, so why do NBA draft scouts love him?

Why Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe is a difficult case for NBA scouts, whom he compares to, and more 2022 NBA draft mystery guys.

There has never been an NBA draft prospect quite like Shaedon Sharpe. You’ll find the 6-foot-6, 200-pound guard and native of London, Ontario, listed as a member of Kentucky’s basketball roster, after Sharpe joined the team as a midyear enrollee in January, but the school announced last week that he will not play for the Wildcats this season.

Sharpe will continue to practice with Kentucky, but whether he ever suits up for a meaningful game with the Wildcats is very much in doubt, owing to his current status as a projected 2022 NBA draft lottery pick. If he doesn’t play college basketball, and without a comparable pro way station like the G League Ignite program or Overtime Elite, Sharpe’s evaluation by NBA decision-makers will have a higher-than-usual degree of difficulty. He will never be a bigger mystery than he is at this moment.

ESPN draft experts Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz tackled all the challenging questions around Sharpe’s case, including which players he compares to, the likelihood of him returning to Kentucky, and which potential lottery teams would be the best fit for his services. Our NBA draft team also identified three more players who are mysteries in the upcoming draft, with full evaluations of each available in ESPN’s Top 100 list.


What are the challenges for NBA teams in assessing where Shaedon Sharpe should be on their draft boards?

Sharpe’s size, frame, explosiveness, dynamic shot-making and overall scoring instincts make him one of the most talented wing prospects in this draft class, as he possesses everything NBA teams look for at his position, with considerable star power to grow into over the long term. There’s a reason he was considered the consensus No. 1 player in his high school class before electing to reclassify and enroll early at Kentucky. In the past 15 years, no No. 1 Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) recruit has ever been drafted outside the top 10, with most being picked in the top three. Nothing about Sharpe suggests his case should be any different. NBA teams view him as a sure-fire lottery pick, and potentially even a top-five pick depending on how the rest of this class evolves over the next four months.

Where should he be drafted? That’s harder to ascertain. Sharpe has never been scouted live by any of the people who will actually be making the decision for where to select him, should he elect to declare for the 2022 NBA draft. Teams weren’t allowed to evaluate Sharpe or any other high school players during the already chaotic 2020-21 season, due to NBA rules that prevent scouts from being in high school gyms outside of select approved events. Usually, the high school all-star circuit (McDonald’s, Hoop Summit, Jordan Brand) plays a major role in helping teams familiarize themselves with the next class of rising college freshmen, but Sharpe will be in Lexington when those happen this spring.

For the first time last year, the NBA allowed scouts to attend the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, a highly competitive AAU/grassroots tournament held in July, where Sharpe cemented his candidacy as the No. 1 player in the class. While some lower-level scouts were in attendance, zero high-level decision-makers were able to take advantage of being allowed to attend, as the event was held in mid-to-late July, ending just days before the 2021 NBA draft.

Sharpe also didn’t participate in the FIBA U19 World Cup last July (which was largely shunned by general managers anyway), due to his commitment to the EYBL. That film from international competition would have likely been heavily scrutinized, but Sharpe certainly made the right choice electing to play in the EYBL instead, where he had a team built around his talent and was able to average 23 points in 28 minutes, leading the event in scoring and dropping vivid glimpses of his talent in high-profile matchups against many of the top backcourt players in his class. Sharpe will not play at Kentucky this season. If he decides to declare, he will at best conduct individual workouts for NBA teams where they’ll have to settle for evaluating Sharpe in a one-on-zero setting, where he’ll surely look exceptional.

It’s rare, but hardly unprecedented, for NBA teams to draft a player they’ve never seen with their own eyes against live competition, but they’ll surely be scrutinizing closely the film they are able to muster from the EYBL last summer, as well as several preseason games Sharpe played in October with his high school team, Dream City Christian (Arizona), for clues into the likelihood of his reaching his sky-high potential.

There are many things you learn about players when evaluating them against the highest levels of competition in pressure-packed environments, where opponents are working on every possession to eliminate your strengths and punish your weaknesses. Sharpe hasn’t been seen in those environments, so there’s considerable guesswork that goes into projecting how he might fare in those situations.

The NBA draft is hard enough to forecast when you have bodies of work consisting of one to four years of college or international play. It’s nearly impossible to predict with any certainty when you have next to nothing to go off such as in Sharpe’s case. At some point in the draft, the reward will outweigh the risk for GMs, as the possibility of getting a top-three-caliber talent in the mid-to-late lottery will likely be too enticing for him to fall too far. Sharpe might look like the No. 1 pick in a private workout. I’d be surprised if he got out of the top 10 if he decides to leave Kentucky this spring. — Jonathan Givony

Kentucky seems to be indicating that Sharpe will return to college in 2022-23. Do NBA scouts you’ve talked to think that’s a real possibility?

These situations are fluid in my experience, and there’s no reason to show your hand at this early stage. Outside of James Wiseman’s situation at Memphis, I’ve never seen a player declare for the NBA draft this early in the season, because that would be distasteful, especially under the circumstances he’s in and the scrutiny Kentucky’s coaching staff is under. None of the draft’s top prospects — Paolo BancheroJabari SmithChet Holmgren et al — have come out saying they definitively will or won’t be in this draft, and neither has Sharpe.

Even coach John Calipari, at a news conference last week, said “we’ll see,” when asked about the possibility of Sharpe testing the NBA draft waters and gathering feedback. “We haven’t gone that far, I don’t see any reason not to,” Calipari said. “If someone in this draft will take him 1,2,3, 5, if someone guarantees me they’ll do it. Then you got to sit down and talk. Will he test the waters? He may not. He may say ‘Coach, I’m not ready.’ We don’t know yet.”

Talking to NBA teams, they are all preparing for Sharpe ultimately being in the draft, and say they’ll be surprised if he isn’t. Historically speaking, 99.9% of players in his situation (projected lottery picks, likely top-10 picks) end up declaring, because there’s simply too much risk in going back to school, risking poor play or injury, and seeing their stock fall.

The most notable exceptions I can recall since Tim Duncan famously passed on the possibility of being the No. 1 pick in the draft to return for his senior season at Wake Forest in 1996? Marcus Smart, a likely top-five pick in 2013, surprisingly returning to Oklahoma State for his sophomore year; teammates Joakim Noah and Al Horford, potential top-10 picks, returning to Florida for their junior seasons after winning the national championship; and Jared Sullinger, then a possible top-five pick, returning to Ohio State for his sophomore season.

NBA teams will explain to Sharpe’s family and mentors that they know how to develop players for the league just as well, if not much better, than colleges do. We saw that when high school players went straight to the NBA, and we’ve seen that time and again with raw or unpolished players who left school before they were even close to being ready to be impact players.

The argument that Sharpe needs to play at Kentucky in order to reach his full potential feels hollow. Great NBA players have come straight from high school, from low-major colleges, from the second division of Greece, via the G League, and everywhere in between. If a team takes him in the top 10, they’ll throw him right into NBA games next season, and let him take his lumps and learn on the fly. Every team in the lottery will likely encourage Sharpe to throw his name in the draft, because this is a short-term business, and it benefits them to have a deeper group of prospects to choose from.

Personally, I’d love to see Sharpe suit up at Kentucky next season and lead his team to the Final Four. But history says that’s unlikely, unless Sharpe decides to buck the trend and bet on himself, which would be awesome to see, but almost entirely unheard of. — Jonathan Givony

Who is the last top-10 player who created this much mystery for evaluators?

It wasn’t that long ago that NBA teams were forced to evaluate players straight out of high school. The 2005 draft, where five of the top seven high school seniors, per RSCI, declared, is a decent gauge for how challenging it was for NBA teams to evaluate players who shunned playing in college. Gerald Green, Monta Ellis, Andray Blatche, Martell Webster and Lou Williams were all none and done. Three of them went in the second round, Green was the No. 18 pick, and Webster went sixth. We live in a different era now in terms of the availability of film, and high school recruiting evaluations have improved considerably.

More recently there are several cases we can point to of players who were barely seen against high-level competition in the year prior to being drafted, but still ended up being picked very high.

Kentucky’s Enes Freedom was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and forced to sit out the entire season prior to entering the 2011 NBA draft, where he was selected third overall.

Dante Exum also sat out the entire season after an outstanding showing at the FIBA U19 World Cup, save for one high school tournament in Australia. He was picked fifth in the 2014 NBA draft.

James Wiseman played only three college games for Memphis (two of which came against South Carolina State and Illinois-Chicago), which didn’t prevent him from being the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

Thon Maker played his high school season at a very low level in Canada, barely seen and with very little footage to go off. He rode strong showings at a pro day and individual workouts to become the No. 10 pick in the 2016 NBA draft.

Emmanuel Mudiay (who played 12 confusing and underwhelming games in China, but was the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft) is another example of NBA teams getting less than perfect samples to evaluate players off, but still electing to pick them extremely high. The Memphis Grizzlies seemingly had no issue shrugging off a poor college season at Stanford from Ziaire Williams by looking back to his far more encouraging showing in high school and EYBL, which helped him establish himself as the No. 6 prospect in his high school class, further showing the importance of pedigree in the evaluation process. The same couldn’t be said about his high school teammate at Sierra Canyon, Brandon Boston (No. 5 RSCI), who slipped to the late second round after a disappointing season at Kentucky. — Jonathan Givony

Who are Sharpe’s NBA comps? Who is his ceiling at the next level, and who is his floor in terms of comparisons?

There are a handful of different players who come to mind when projecting Sharpe to the next level, which is always a good sign for the prospect’s NBA outlook. From strictly a physical sense, Sharpe — who stands 6-foot-6, 200 pounds with a 7-0 wingspan — compares most favorably to former Wildcat Hamidou Diallo, who also enrolled at Kentucky a semester early before ultimately returning for a second year and going No. 45 in the 2018 draft. In terms of body control and leaping ability, Diallo is up there with some of the NBA’s elite, and Sharpe belongs in that category, as his ability to change speeds, explode to the rim and finish highlight dunks acrobatically off one or two feet is among the best in this draft class.

As a player, Sharpe, whom I first saw when he was a virtual unknown at the 2019 BioSteel All-Canadian Boys Futures game in 2019, is a prototypical scoring off guard who can create his own shot out of a variety of different dribble moves. On the high end, think a less powerful Anthony Edwards. Like Edwards, Sharpe already has step-backs, pull-backs and hesitation pull-ups in his bag, along with the type of quickness to put pressure on the rim and finish with unique body control and explosion. He’s instant offense when he gets it going, showing the capacity to knock down the type of difficult pull-ups you see from NBA All-Stars.

Like a young Edwards, Sharpe also lets defenses off the hook too often by settling for contested jump shots, not always using his physical gifts to put pressure on the rim. Although he has a different body type, Jalen Green is another dynamic scorer who comes to mind when projecting Sharpe, who shoots it better than both Edwards and Green. While not the same style of player, Sharpe’s demeanor is a little more Andrew Wiggins-like, as he’s quiet on the floor and, like a young Wiggins, has stretches where you don’t feel his impact quite as much as his talent and tools suggest. He’s more than capable defensively, and I did see some competitiveness in him during my first evaluation almost three years ago, yet Sharpe’s defensive effort, toughness and engagement tend to fluctuate.

In terms of his floor, think smooth wing scorers and shot-makers such as Terrence RossJeremy Lamb or J.R. Smith. Sharpe is way more advanced than Ross — who came off the bench for the University of Washington as a freshman — at the same stage, but he brings a similar level of physical ability and provides instant offense similar to Smith. The question for Sharpe will be whether he’ll evolve into a true franchise cornerstone and All-Star by not only scoring but adding value defensively and making his teammates better. Or will he settle into more of a bench bucket-getting role as a microwave scorer who can’t be the primary focus on a nightly basis? The answer to that question will ultimately revolve around Sharpe’s work habits, capacity to address his weaknesses and the situation he’s drafted into. — Mike Schmitz

Which potential NBA lottery teams would be the best fit for Sharpe?

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a natural fit given their timeline, the fact that two of their best players also hail from Canada (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort), and that one of SGA’s mentors is Dwayne Washington, Sharpe’s coach and mentor. Sharpe’s shot-making ability and explosiveness would be an intriguing fit alongside Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, especially because the 18-year-old is best alongside more cerebral playmakers. The Thunder might be drafting too high to even consider Sharpe, however.

With that in mind, landing spots like Atlanta and Memphis become attractive as both teams are competitive enough that Sharpe won’t be asked to do too much too soon, yet he can benefit from the brilliant playmaking of lead guards such as Trae Young and Ja Morant. Being drafted into a culture similar to Memphis’ that values toughness and plays with an edge would be ideal for Sharpe, who can be a bit sleepy at times. With Portland now potentially holding two top-10 picks, it’s worth thinking about what he would look like alongside Anfernee Simons and Damian Lillard, if he is indeed with the Trail Blazers long-term. A Simons-Sharpe backcourt would make for one of the most explosive and entertaining young guard tandems in the NBA.

Overall, landing somewhere where he’ll be challenged defensively and taught how to value every possession, even when his shot isn’t falling, will be a driving factor in whether Sharpe can reach his sky-high potential, which is that of an NBA All-Star. — Mike Schmitz

Who are four more mystery players in this draft?

David Roddy | 6-6 | Forward | 20.8 years old | Colorado State | No. 39 in Top 100

Although you can’t miss his 6-6, 260-pound frame, 20-year-old junior Roddy has been hiding out in the Mountain West Conference and hasn’t quite received the type of NBA buzz you’d expect given his productivity and efficiency on a 19-3 Colorado State team. Roddy is no mystery prospect among true college basketball die-hards, as he’s a three-year starter as the leader of a strong Rams program. Yet given his thick frame that resembles a late-career Charles Barkley along with his unique skill set for his body type, he’s a prospect NBA front offices are bound to be divided on and confused by. You don’t see many 260-pounders who move like he does with his skill set, which is likely to lead to questions like: Whom does he guard? What position is he? Can he maintain his conditioning? Will his production translate? — Mike Schmitz

Read Schmitz’s complete evaluation in NBA draft Top 100

Ousmane Dieng | 6-10 | Forward | 18.7 years old | New Zealand Breakers | No. 19 in Top 100

While we first evaluated Dieng back in 2019 as a 16-year-old and have scouted him extensively since, most NBA decision-makers have yet to see the tantalizing 6-10 wing in person for a variety of different reasons. For one, Dieng, whose mother is French and father is Senegalese, didn’t partake in the highly attended FIBA U19 World Championships over the summer due to injury. He then signed with the New Zealand Breakers of the Australian NBL, yet non-Aussie scouts haven’t been able to enter Australia easily this season due to COVID-19 restrictions. With 12 games now under his belt, Dieng will soon be thrust under the NBA microscope as Australia is set to open its borders on Feb. 21. Just as Dieng was starting to hit his stride and play his best basketball of the season, he suffered a microfracture in his wrist and will miss the next two weeks, slightly delaying his long-awaited debut to NBA scouts and further adding to the mystery. — Mike Schmitz

Read Schmitz’s complete evaluation in NBA draft Top 100

Yannick Nzosa | 6-11 | Center | 18.2 years old | Unicaja Malaga | No. 38 in Top 100

After putting together an excellent debut season in the ACB last season, Yannick Nzosa quickly fell out of favor with NBA scouts and executives, as he struggled to build on his 2020-21 campaign, regressing in an inconsistent role with Unicaja Malaga in Spain. Although he has been a big name in scouting circles for some time, most decision-makers have yet to get a real in-depth look at the 6-11 rangy big man as he missed five months due to a groin injury in the offseason and Malaga practices were closed to NBA scouts early in the season.

On top of that, Nzosa’s play in October — 1.6 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 12.4 minutes over seven games on 26.7% shooting — didn’t exactly generate the type of intrigue that would lead scouts to make him a priority on their often-complex international scouting schedules.

Read Schmitz’s complete evaluation in NBA draft Top 100

Zvonimir Ivisic | 7-2 | Center | 18.5 years old | KK Studentski Centar | No. 68 in Top 100

Ivisic emerged as an NBA prospect at the 2019 European Championship, alongside his twin brother, Tomislav, but spent much of the subsequent two years nursing injuries that kept him largely off the radar of scouts. Born in Bosnia, but spending his formative basketball years in Croatia (which he represents internationally), Ivisic moved to Montenegro a year and a half ago and has quietly reemerged as an intriguing long-term prospect between sporadic showings in the weak domestic league, in regional under-19 competition and in occasional showcase minutes in the Adriatic League with SC Derby.

Read Givony’s complete evaluation in NBA draft Top 100

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