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Sharife Cooper, Jalen Johnson shedding 'risky' labels with dominant summer league showing

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LAS VEGAS — The Atlanta Hawks have a lot of momentum heading into next season after making the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2015. 

Trae Young signed a five-year, $207 million max contract, and the Hawks had two picks in the 2021 NBA draft, one of the deepest classes in recent memory. Atlanta drafted 6-foot-9 forward Jalen Johnson at No. 20 and point guard Sharife Cooper at No. 48. Both players were considered two of the riskiest players going into the draft.

Johnson played only 13 games at Duke then elected to leave early to train for the draft. There wasn’t a huge sample size for NBA scouts to feel confident taking him as a lottery pick. His upside is apparent with his size and athleticism, but he has left two teams early. He also left his high school team, IMG Academy, midseason.

Cooper had eligibility issues coming into his freshman year at Auburn. He had to sit out the first 11 games and made a huge statement in his first collegiate game scoring 26 points and dishing out nine assists. During the pre-draft process, he elected to sit out the NBA draft combine scrimmages and only participate in his pro day and individual workouts.

Atlanta Hawks guard Sharife Cooper defends against Indiana Pacers guard Keifer Sykes during the 2021 NBA Summer League at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2021. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)
Atlanta Hawks guard Sharife Cooper defends against Indiana Pacers guard Keifer Sykes during the 2021 NBA Summer League at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2021. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

The upside to both players is huge, but they are two of the biggest high-risk, high-reward players in this draft class. Cooper is a tremendous playmaker, but is undersized at 6-foot and needs to work on his shot selection. Johnson is great in the open court and one of the most versatile players on the floor when he’s healthy and injury-free. No one really knew for certain what kind of players they would be at the NBA level.

Two games into summer league, it looks like the Hawks got the steals of the draft. Cooper looks extremely comfortable on the court, finding teammates and knocking down open shots. 

“This isn’t just summer league for me,” Cooper said. “Any game where I put on a jersey and represent something way bigger than me in the Hawks, it’s something I don’t take lightly.”

Cooper hit the game-winning shot, a corner 3-pointer, against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday and finished with 21 points and nine assists. He shot only 23% from deep in his one season at Auburn, but that is a distant memory now after knocking down five 3-pointers in his second summer league game. 

“I always felt like I could shoot, but in college, I had a bit of a narrative change,” Cooper told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve worked so hard and people don’t see the work I put in to get to this point. Whatever they tell me I can’t do, you better believe I’m working on it and being able to see the work come to fruition and pay off is a great feeling.”

Johnson has been just as impressive early on. He pushes the ball up the court after a rebound and is deadly in iso situations when there’s a mismatch. He’s averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds in his first two games while playing multiple positions.

“He’s a versatile player, and we can plug him into multiple positions, which is what makes him special,” Hawks summer league head coach Matt Hill said. “He’s great in the open court, he can make reads from the post and elbow in iso situations. I think his variety and versatility gives us a lot of options offensively.”

Both players are familiar with each other’s games after playing against one another in high school and on the AAU circuit. 

“Sharife trusts me, and it’s just a natural connection that we have,” Johnson said. “We’re both playmakers, so it makes it easier for that trust factor. He’s probably one of the best playmakers I’ve ever played with.”

Young sat courtside for both games and exchanged words with Cooper after his game-winner. 

“He just said, ‘Good shot, killa,’ and I was like, ‘I got it from you,’” Cooper said. “I watched him all season and watched him hit countless big shots, so I can’t wait to get in the gym with him and work with him.”

Both Young and Cooper are ball-dominant guards, but there doesn’t seem to be any questions or concerns as to how the two players can work together in the backcourt. 

“There’s a lot of ball-handlers on the floor at the same time here at summer league with Jalen Johnson and Skylar Mays, so sometimes I have to play off the ball and I’m comfortable with that,” Cooper added. “We’re definitely going to make it work. We’re both two basketball players that love the game so we’ll figure something out.”

Both Cooper and Johnson are looking like instant impact players who will see solid minutes this upcoming season. The Hawks might have taken a risk drafting both players, but if the first two summer league games are any indication as to how the regular season will be, it looks like it will pay off in a huge way.

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