Before we start up this draft profile, I want to give you all a blind resume of two players’ stat line per 40 minutes.
Pretty similar, right? One would think stat lines that close to each other would mean both players are of comparable caliber, huh? Well, Player A is what Atlanta Hawks’ superstar Trae Young pulled off during his lone season at Oklahoma. Who is player B? Don’t worry, I got you. The answer to that question would be… Auburn’s Sharife Cooper.
Granted, Trae Young played a full season at Oklahoma, while Sharife Cooper only played 12 games this season for the Auburn Tigers. but I think it is important to bring Trae Young up and what he did in these playoffs when assessing Cooper’s potential. Now, I’m not saying that Cooper is for sure going to be ‘the next Trae Young,’ but both play with similar styles. I think it is important to bring Trae Young up though and what he did in these playoffs when assessing Sharife Cooper’s potential. In a pick-and-roll-centric league, Young dominated each and every one of his NBA opponents with his supreme blend of playmaking and scoring in that regard. Cooper could possibly be the best pick-and-roll playmaker in this draft outside of Cade Cunningham, but he needs to improve as a shooter to maximize his potential. We’ll talk about that later. But what may be stood out the most to me watching Trae in the playoffs was how he was able to survive on the defensive end of the floor.
I think this is the most important piece of this conversation. The expectation from many, including myself, was for Trae Young to get massacred on the defensive end of the floor. That simply did not happen. Young was mostly able to hide on spot-up shooters, hedge when forced to come up in ball-screens and fight to not relinquish his plush defensive duties while the Hawks’ primary defender fought to get back to his man. On top of that, even when the offense won this power struggle, Young was adequate enough to be far from bbq chicken. This stop on Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will forever ring in my mind to give Young his respect as a defender in the postseason because he stepped up to the challenge, despite his diminutive size at 6’1” 180 pounds.
As luck would have it, Sharife Cooper’s size is comparable to Young’s at… 6’1” 180 pounds! On top of that, the times I’ve seen Cooper play, he gets after it defensively. Cooper moves his feet well and has good hands to get steals and deflections. Cooper is not afraid of withstanding contact either. This play is a great example.
Cooper is right there with Devontae Shuler of Ole Miss, a talented scorer in his own right, matching Shuler stride for stride to give him a solid contest at the rim. This was not an isolated incident, either. No one is going to mistake Cooper for Marcus Smart or Jrue Holiday as a defender, but to me, he showed more often than not he’s up to the task defensively and could stay on the floor in pressured situations, especially if he’s asked to hide on lesser offensive players the way Young was.
Where Sharife Cooper needs to make up ground, however, is his shooting. We all knew Young could scorch the earth from distance while at Norman and uses that to his advantage in the NBA to get to his patented floater. Cooper does not have that same luxury. He shot just 22.8% from deep at Auburn this past season. The advanced numbers don’t paint a rosy picture either. According to Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, Cooper generated less than 0.7 points per possession when shooting off the dribble this season. Whether his defenders would get caught on screens or they’d go under, Cooper simply didn’t make defenses pay when he got cut off from the paint.
I think Sharife Cooper can improve as a shooter and finisher, though. Cooper did shoot 82.5% from the free-throw line this season, which has been a better indicator of shooting success over the years than three-point percentages. Though floaters are not there in his bag quite yet, he’s shown he does have soft touch around the rim.
We’ve also seen plenty of instances where guys enter the league not known as shooters only to improve once they’re coached up and have more time to focus solely on basketball. Guys like Lonzo Ball, Kawhi Leonard, Jaylen Brown, and plenty others are just a few examples. Cooper is not a great shooter right now, but it certainly is an area where others have improved, and Cooper has a baseline to get better to be a threat from the outside.
Just because Sharife Cooper’s jumper isn’t up to par yet, that doesn’t mean he can’t score. Cooper has a great handle to match top speed to be able to get by his defender to the rim when he has that runway to get there. Cooper also matches that handle and speed with excellent patience and a change of speeds in the halfcourt to throw off defenders and buy himself extra time and separation to get where he ultimately wants to go. He does all that but also doesn’t mind physicality either. You don’t just luck into 8.6 free throw attempts per game. In fact, Cooper managed to attempt at least 10 free throws in half of his games this season, including a gargantuan 21 attempts in an upset win over Missouri in January. Cooper’s shiftiness matched with his speed and poise to attack once he sees daylight is what allows him to be able to be such an effective scorer without a dependable jumper to rely upon at the moment. Watch how he combines all of those attributes here to earn himself some free throws.
Getting a jumper is important because it can set up his best and most important skill: his passing. In a draft with Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, Josh Giddey, Cooper might be the best of them all when it comes to passing and playmaking. He is an absolute savant of a playmaker who manipulates defenders like a puppet master. He sometimes sees plays so quickly that his own teammates don’t even suspect it.
In the pick and roll, he sees everything. What stands out so much about Cooper running pick and roll is his patience reading the floor. He will hardly ever rush or force a pass. Instead, he lets plays develop and pounces on scrambling defenses. A lot like what guys like Trae Young, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, and others do, when he sees the weakside defender tagging the roll man, Cooper will laser the ball to the player that defender is guarding like it’s nothing. Advanced reads and passes like this are not that common amongst NBA stars, let alone prospects.
His playmaking genius applies against zone defenses as well. What’s great about Cooper’s playmaking is that he sets up his teammates to succeed in situations that won’t always lead him to assists. He’ll rack up a ton of hockey assists as well when defenses send extra attention his way and force him to give it up. This play here is an ultimate example. Ole Miss’ defenders at the top of the zone creep up towards Cooper, so he sets up teammate JT Thor in the middle of the zone, who then zips a pass to another teammate for a layup.
This play right here encapsulates Sharife Cooper and his talent level in a nutshell. He gets a stop on a drive at the rim, gets the outlet pass, and rifles a bounce pass from one end of the court to the other.
Sharife Cooper’s feel and playmaking are not easy to find. He really does look like guards of Trae Young and Ja Morant’s level as a passer and playmaker. We just saw Young absolutely dominate the playoffs and carry his team way sooner than expected to the Eastern Conference Finals and what could have been the NBA Finals had he not turned his foot on the shoe of a referee. Again, I’m not saying that Sharife Cooper is going to be the next Trae Young, but his playmaking and frame make it hard not to think of Young when watching Cooper play. Young showed a guard like him can lead a team to playoff prominence. Wouldn’t more teams want a guy like Trae Young?
The NBA is a pick-and-roll game. Sharife Cooper has all the talent in the world to be a big-time difference-making star for whatever team that drafts him, in my opinion. While I’ve made the comp to Trae Young for Cooper, I’m not expecting him to replicate Young and his outstanding achievements, but Young’s success perhaps opens more doors for Cooper to get the chance to attempt to do the same than otherwise. Cooper has work to do with his shooting to enter that stratosphere, but I firmly believe he has what it takes to get there. I think Sharife Cooper should be at minimum a lottery pick and work his way inside the top ten. I’m all in on the Sharife Cooper bandwagon, and there’s plenty of room and time to hop aboard.