Shaedon Sharpe may have a minimal track record, but his NBA potential looks sky high

Shaedon Sharpe of the Kentucky Wildcats warms up prior to the game against the Auburn Tigers. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Canada’s next potential NBA star did indeed have a basketball in his crib not long after he arrived home from hospital, eventually to occupy the role of middle child in Julia and Robert Sharpe’s still growing family.

But there was a football and a baseball and a soccer ball and who knows what else.

That Shaedon Sharpe grew up to be an athletic kid in London, Ont., was no great shock. His father played football and basketball throughout high school, his older sister, Amari, was an avid gymnast before studying kinesiology, his younger brother, Naishayne, is an up-and-coming basketball player, too.

But looking on as Shaedon becomes one of the most talked-about players in the NBA draft and a potential top-10 pick on Thursday night? A soon-to-be millionaire? An all-around talent who happens to possess the combination of size, explosiveness, and grace that inspire comparisons to all-time NBA greats?

That part has been unscripted.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Julia Sharpe over the phone late last week, as she was in the final countdown to organize her family for a week in New York City as guests of the NBA. “We didn’t expect this year for sure.”

It's just the beginning. Soon after her just-turned 19-year-old hears his name called by commissioner Adam Silver, he will go from prospect to professional, with a four-year contract worth about $22.5 million if he goes seventh overall, as predicted by some mock drafts.

If he gets taken in the lottery (among the top 14 selections), the 6-foot-5 Sharpe will join a long list of Canadians taken in the upper reaches of the draft: since 2013 there have been nine taken in the lottery and six in the top 10. But few have had as little fanfare or minimal a track record as Sharpe, which makes his story different.

“I feel there is curiosity and mystery with me,” he says. “But I’m just in the gym getting ready.”

He’s the potential star whose hype train was stalled by the pandemic, who then raised eyebrows with his path this past season when he opted to enroll at the University of Kentucky midway through the season. This was done ostensibly with an eye on playing this year and next before entering the 2023 draft, but ultimately Sharpe chose not to play for the Wildcats at all and enter the 2022 draft instead.

Not that Sharpe is shy about creating expectations for himself.

“I see myself being one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball, just getting after it and competing,” he says.  “One of my goals is to win Rookie of the Year and also all-star and later on Hall of Fame.”

No one is saying he can’t do all that, but in an era of information overload, where players have been tracked online since eighth grade in some cases, Sharpe is the rare prospect where game tape is limited and his competitive track record against other elite talent is relatively sparse, so there are question marks, too.

So far he’s worked out for the Orlando Magic (who pick No. 1), Oklahoma City Thunder (2), Detroit Pistons (5), the Indian Pacers (6), Portland Trail Blazers (7), San Antonio Spurs (9), and Charlotte Hornets (13).

“It's really going to come down to how comfortable people are with just taking a flyer on a guy, because that's what it is,” said one NBA executive I spoke with. “It’s going to be: if you've got the set up and the means to take on a project for a couple of years and he comes in and hits, then you’re going to look really smart. But then if he doesn't, it's kind of like you took a shot and you missed … you gotta be able to take that risk.”

Sharpe worked his way onto the NBA radar after an explosive summer in 2021 on the highly-competitive EYBL club circuit, where he starred for Uplay, an AAU club out of Hamilton that counts RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder among its alumni. He went from being the unranked kid with one season as a starter at a U.S. high school (Dream City Christian in Glendale, Ariz.,) to the No. 1 high school player in his class after putting up 22.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 12 EYBL games.

His talent is obvious, even on video. There is a clip of him jumping with a one-step gather and off two feet — a standard pre-draft combine test — and reportedly touching a target 49 inches off the ground. If accurate, it would have broken the NBA combine record of 48 inches.

As well, Sharpe is a smooth mover with a comfortable, fluid, shooting motion, and shot the ball well at an individual workout for NBA teams during the draft combine last month.

But athleticism and skill are merely the price of entry when embarking on a high-end NBA career. Some of the more subtle requirements are harder to evaluate, and more so in Sharpe’s case. “He’s clearly an athlete, and you can tell he’s put some work on his game, even if you look at his shooting or ball-handling, he’s made a lot of progress,” said one NBA talent evaluator familiar with Sharpe’s game. “But he’s definitely skipping some development steps and NBA teams want every bit of information they can get. They want to know how he performed in big moments, how he was as a teammate, what kind of decisions he makes under pressure. With Shaedon it will be harder to do that.”

In contrast, Benedict Mathurin, the Montreal wing who starred at the University of Arizona, has steadily worked his way into the high lottery in part because NBA teams can see his progress. That progress began with his freshman season at Arizona, followed by his showing for Canada at the U19 world championship last summer, throughout his recently completed sophomore season, and concluding with his breakout performance in the NCAA tournament.

Will Mathurin be a star? He may be, but if he doesn’t turn out to be, whichever NBA team takes him won’t have a hard time explaining what they are were thinking with the pick.

Sharpe brings more risk, but also more upside, possibly.

Those who know him swear by his talent and potential.

Caleb Houstan is another Canadian wing who is projected to be taken late in the first round or early in the second. The 6-foot-8 University of Michigan freshman from Mississauga, Ont., played with Sharpe on the Canadian U16 national team that finished second at the FIBA Americas Championship in 2019, losing in the finals to a U.S. squad loaded with first-round talent. The pair also worked out together during the pandemic at Royal Crown Academy in Scarborough.

“Freak athlete, like ridiculous bounce. Like, real good. I don't know like real smooth, you know? Knows how to play with the ball, create his own shot. Real athletic, real smooth game, so he’s real good,” said Houstan. “I think a lot of people don't know how good he really is because they haven’t seen him play, but he’s real good, for sure. Not overrated at all, definitely a real good player and a real good dude.”

For all that, having their son turn professional at this stage was a decision the family thought long and hard about, just as they did when deciding to allow Shaedon to leave home to play high school basketball in the U.S. after grade 10.

For his part Sharpe, is used to catching the basketball mainstream a little bit off guard, and then rapidly exceeding expectations. For years the heartbeat of Canada’s elite basketball scene has emanated from the Greater Toronto Area. London — a mid-sized city about 200 kilometres west of Toronto — doesn’t have quite the same cachet.

“It’s a hockey town,” says Rob Sharpe, an IT analyst for the municipal government.

What sport Shaedon was going to play was never pre-determined, but early on it was clear he was going to excel at something. “Even when he was little, he was always quick and fast, and couldn’t sit still,” says Julia, who works for an insurance company and remembers Shaedon pretending to be a running back in the grocery store, dodging in and out of opposing shoppers. At home he was no different. “Most sit kids would watch their idols on TV, but Shaedon couldn’t watch a whole game, he’d have to go outside and start practising their moves.”

He played football through eighth grade before concentrating on basketball. But even then there was no rush to accelerate the process, which is why Sharpe stayed under the radar even in Canada early on. The Sharpes count themselves lucky to have a local club, Gold Medal Basketball, run by a London hoops fixture, Tony Marcotullio, to help Shaedon develop. His big break came as a ninth grader when he was playing at the provincial high school championship in London for H.B. Beal Secondary and he came to the attention of Patrick Tatham, the McMaster Marauders head coach and the then assistant for Canada’s U16 team.

“I was like, oh my gosh, this kid is so good,” says Tatum. “We brought him into national team camp and within two days we were like, this kid is a lock [to make the team.]”

He ended up being a starter and one of the most efficient players in the tournament, contributing 13 points a game on 68 per cent shooting, terrorizing teams in transition, and finishing above the rim on lobs and put backs. The only question mark then was his ability to harness his talent with long stretches of hard play.

“He found a way to play harder here or there, in spurts, but it just wasn’t sustainable,” says Tatum. “He’d have a few possessions of it and then go back to his normal self, but you could see all the flashes and the athleticism, and that he could shoot it, and he could guard too. So you could see the talent. But you just didn’t know if he would flip the switch and understand how hard you have to play on every possession.”

Fortunately, his talent makes up for a lot.

“I used to get on him about his defence,” says Junior Clayton, who coached Sharpe in AAU basketball. “And one time this guy was blowing by him, and I was telling him to move his feet, and the next time the guy beat him again and I was just about to yell but Shaedon just [pivoted], jumped and pinned the guy’s lay-up against the backboard with two hands.

“I tell people that — athletically — he’s got the explosiveness of Vince Carter, but the smoothness of Michael Jordan.”

Soon enough the comparisons won’t be necessary, and Sharpe will be evaluated based on his performance, rather than his potential.

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