Sharife Cooper 2021 NBA Draft Profile: Knicks 'gathering a lot of information' on PG

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Auburn's Sharife Cooper treated image
Auburn's Sharife Cooper treated image

Sharife Cooper is one of the most talented players in the 2021 NBA Draft.

So why do several mock drafts have him outside of the top 10?

“Based on what I’ve seen from him in high school, he’s top 5 in this draft,” a Western Conference evaluator said last week. “I don’t know where he’ll go, but he’s one of the best players in the draft. I think some of these (mock drafts) are off.”

In its most recent mock draft, ESPN has the point guard -- a position of need for the Knicks -- going to the Knicks at No. 19.

Several teams feel Cooper will be drafted well ahead of the Knicks’ pick.

It’s unclear if New York has brought Cooper in for a workout. But several teams say the Knicks have been seeking information on Cooper and have been curious about where he might be selected.

“They’re gathering a lot of information about him,” a source who had heard from the Knicks said last week.

The Knicks are also considering options in free agency and monitoring the trade market for potential lead guards.

If they selected Cooper, a 6-2 guard, they’d get a player who has the potential to develop into a top guard in the NBA, according to one evaluator.

The evaluator’s opinion is based on Cooper’s elite play in high school and in the EYBL league for top high school talent. It’s also based on some context around Cooper’s freshman year at Auburn.

“He basically didn’t play a game in a full year (before his Auburn debut in January),” the scout said. “That should be taken into account. He didn’t have a chance to do much of anything before his first game. Again, based on what he showed in high school, he’s a top 5 player in the draft.”

Jan 26, 2021; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Auburn Tigers guard Sharife Cooper (2) drives to the basket against Missouri Tigers guard Xavier Pinson (1) during the first half at Auburn Arena.
Jan 26, 2021; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Auburn Tigers guard Sharife Cooper (2) drives to the basket against Missouri Tigers guard Xavier Pinson (1) during the first half at Auburn Arena.

Cooper’s senior year in high school was limited by COVID-19. He then had to sit out practices and games as a freshman while the NCAA reviewed his eligibility. In all, he missed Auburn’s first 11 games – and 72 days in total. He hadn’t played in an organized game in nearly a year before his Jan. 9 debut against Alabama.

Cooper had 26 points and nine assists in that game and averaged 20.2 points, 8.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and a steal per game in 12 games. His season was cut short due to an ankle injury.

In that 12-game stretch, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl believes he saw a rare talent in Cooper.

“Sharife’s unique ability is that he can go by his man and he can finish in traffic unlike anybody I’ve seen his size in over a decade,” Pearl said. “A lot of little guys can go by but once they get in there, they’re in trouble. He can get it to the rim on his own, he can get to the foul line. He can throw it to either hand to back-cutting players. Get him involved in ball screens and he makes everybody around him better. That’s going to translate (to the NBA).”

The Powder Springs, Ga. native scored or assisted on 47.3% of Auburn’s points while he was in the lineup.

He was one of only two freshmen in the past 30 years of college basketball, along with Oklahoma's Trae Young, to average over 20 points and 8 assists per game, per ESPN. He also regularly drew charges on defense and averaged 8.6 free throw attempts per game.

“Offensively, guys like this don’t come around every year. They just don’t,” Pearl says. “Obviously, you’re taking a chance because of his size and you’re taking a chance because of the body of work. There’s not a ton to look at. He played 12 games in the SEC. But you’ve got to go back to EYBL and understand that most of the guys in the NBA were in the EYBL and they couldn’t stop him there. As a junior, he won a national championship in high school, didn’t lose a game (Cooper went 32-0 at McEachern in Georgia). And he averaged 20 and (8) for me in 12 games. So every level, he’s checked those boxes.

“He’s the kind of dynamic player that you don’t want to pass on and have it come back and bite you like it could.”

Cooper averaged 25.3 points, 8.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game in Nike EYBL, a grassroots league that features the top high school players in the country. Cooper’s peers, Pearl says, are well aware of his talent and impact on the game.

“His teammates respect him, he’s a leader on every team. He’s got a Pied Piper effect. And probably more important, opponents fear him,” Pearl says. “You might say, ‘Why are you fearing the littlest guy on the floor’? I can just tell you, players know players. The players fear him because you can’t keep him in front (of them) and they know how good he is.”

Do teams have the same read on Cooper? Or are they weighing his size and short tenure at Auburn more heavily than his high school career? We’ll find out next Thursday.