Just a little more than a month after Kentucky landed a commitment from basketball star Shaedon Sharpe — the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class — the feeling in some UK fan circles turned from joy to trepidation.
That was due to a report from 247Sports a couple of weeks ago that stated Sharpe was “strongly considering” graduating from high school early and enrolling at UK during the semester break this season.
On one hand, such a move could give Sharpe an extra few months to learn at the college level while also giving Kentucky another talented player, even if only for the team’s practices. On the other hand, there were immediate fears among some fans that Sharpe might try to use the early graduation as a way to work himself into the 2022 NBA Draft, possibly meaning he would never play a game for the Wildcats before turning pro.
Dwayne Washington, the director of Sharpe’s Nike-affiliated UPlay Canada team and the UK commitment’s basketball mentor, told the Herald-Leader on Monday that Kentucky fans have nothing to worry about in that regard.
Washington did not explicitly say that Sharpe would indeed be enrolling at Kentucky early and joining the team in December, but it certainly sounds like that’s the most likely scenario at this point.
Sharpe’s mentor noted that the future Wildcat dominated the Nike EYBL circuit over the summer and has found in the early going of this high school basketball season that there are no more challenges for him at this level. Graduating from high school early — something that would be easily manageable — and heading to Lexington this winter would allow Sharpe to practice against older players and get a better understanding of what he needs to work on to excel as a freshman in the 2022-23 season.
“Even if he comes in December, he’s not going to play,” Washington said. “At most, he’ll practice in the second semester, just because that will allow him to get a head start. … It’s a unique opportunity to be in. And he doesn’t want to take away from Kentucky, because they have a great season and a chance to (make an NCAA Tournament run) this year. We don’t want to affect that.”
Washington stated multiple times that Sharpe does not want to be a distraction for this season’s Kentucky team, and that he has been quietly trying to make the best decision for his basketball future. (To Washington’s point, Sharpe has not yet talked publicly about the possibility of early enrollment).
247Sports analyst Travis Branham, who originally broke the news that Sharpe was considering early enrollment, told the Herald-Leader late last week that his best guess is that the 6-foot-5 shooting guard would ultimately make the move.
“It would be very helpful for him,” Branham added, “I don’t know how much more benefit he would get out of playing more high school basketball. He’s just very advanced for a high school kid already. He’s physically skilled. His scoring package — all of these things — he’s just very advanced at this point, and I don’t see him getting too much better at the high school level. So going to Kentucky, playing against that type of size, length, athleticism — a new structure — all of that will only help him.”
Washington didn’t have an exact timetable for when an early enrollment decision would be made, but he did confirm that Sharpe will officially sign with Kentucky on Nov. 10, the first day of the early signing period for the 2022 class.
John Calipari cannot comment publicly on Sharpe until he signs with the program, per NCAA rules, but the UK coach seemed to acknowledge the possibility of an early enrollment at last week’s team Media Day, when he took a question about midseason transfers and spun it into one about midseason enrollees. Calipari noted that Hamidou Diallo, who did the same thing in 2017 that Sharpe is contemplating now, was the only UK player in his tenure who made such a move.
Diallo practiced with the Cats for the second half of the 2016-17 season, then returned to play his freshman year in 2017-18 before heading off to the NBA Draft.
“If it happens and the kid can really benefit by practicing and being a part of our team and getting a head start, that’s fine,” Calipari said last week of such a scenario.
Sharpe and the NBA Draft?
If Sharpe does join the Wildcats during the 2021-22 season, there will surely be speculation that he’d try to jump straight to the 2022 NBA Draft.
“He will not be going to the NBA Draft,” Washington said Monday, enunciating every word of that sentence for effect. “That’s not even something to talk about. That’s like saying, ‘Are you going to go to Mars tomorrow?’”
A few years ago, Washington played a similar role in the development and recruitment of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who came to UK in the 2017 class as a four-star recruit and emerged over the course of the season into a one-and-done lottery pick. That previous relationship between Washington and Calipari helped position Kentucky early for Sharpe’s commitment, and all parties saw the value of being patient with the developmental process.
Gilgeous-Alexander was selected with the No. 11 pick in the 2018 draft. Before the start of this season, Sports Illustrated included the former Wildcat — still just 23 years old — as one of the NBA’s top 30 players.
“I learned with Shai Gilgeous, you take your time. Even when you just sit on the bench,” Washington said, referring to Gilgeous-Alexander not starting in 13 of his first 15 games at UK.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s evolution in one season at Kentucky is brought up often by Calipari as what’s possible with hard work, and the environment that Washington saw previously in Lexington is a major reason Sharpe will be wearing a UK jersey in the future.
Of course, Sharpe will be coming to Kentucky with much higher expectations. He’s ranked No. 1 in the 2022 class by Rivals.com, 247Sports and ESPN. Gilgeous-Alexander was the No. 31 recruit in his class.
“Just because you’re No. 1 — that don’t mean s---, man,” Washington said. “You have to compete. When you get to practice, there’s no ranking. There’s no rankings after high school. That means nothing.”
It was reiterated multiple times that — if Sharpe does enroll early — he will do so with a concrete plan of practicing with Kentucky for the second half of this season and returning to UK to play the 2022-23 season.
Washington added that he doesn’t even think Sharpe would be eligible for next year’s draft. He will meet the age requirement — Sharpe turns 19 in May 2022 — but there’s an additional requirement that says “at least one NBA season (must have) elapsed since the player’s graduation from high school” for an early entrant to be eligible for the draft. Since Sharpe has not yet graduated from high school and the 2021-22 NBA season has already started, a logical reading of the rule would conclude that he wouldn’t meet that requirement.
And even though Sharpe is from Canada, he does not meet the league’s definition of an “international” player — a group that has different draft eligibility rules — since he has attended high school in the United States.
“It is not an option,” Washington said again of a none-and-done jump from Kentucky to the NBA.
Sharpe’s mentor also pointed out that the player would not be eligible to collect name, image and likeness money at Kentucky due to current NIL rules putting restrictions on international student-athletes. Washington also noted that, if Sharpe was simply worried about getting paid and getting to the NBA as quickly as possible, he could have easily graduated from high school over the summer and taken a seven-figure offer to play this season in the G League before entering the 2022 NBA Draft.
Instead, Sharpe wants to go to Kentucky. And he wants to be ready when he starts his pro career.
“If he wanted to do what you guys are saying, he’d just go to the G League, man,” Washington said. “Think about it? Why would he go to (Kentucky) to do that? It doesn’t make sense. You go there to get ready so you can have a 16-year career (in the NBA). You don’t go there to rush somewhere that you could already get to. Everything is all about development, and the process is all about the individual being prepared when he steps on the court. It’s really that simple.”