The Kentucky basketball career of Shaedon Sharpe might be a short one.
Formerly the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class, Sharpe left high school late last year to enroll in classes early at UK for this semester, though the original plan was for him to join the team as a practice player only and make his college basketball debut next season.
The circumstances surrounding his presence on this Kentucky roster have changed.
ESPN reported Thursday that Sharpe will be eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft, meaning he could leave Lexington without playing a single minute for the Wildcats.
The saga surrounding his recruitment, playing status and draft situation has been a strange one in recent months. Originally, it was expected that Sharpe would not be eligible for the NBA Draft until 2023, and the biggest question seemed to be whether or not UK Coach John Calipari would opt to play him in games down the stretch this season.
247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader last month that there were still rumblings that Sharpe would be eligible for this year’s draft, however. That’s now confirmed.
“It’s not a surprise. I’m surprised at the timing more than I am at the actual fact that he’s eligible,” Branham said Thursday. “There’s been a lot of mixed information, and the information that was coming across as more credible was that he would be draft-eligible in 2022.”
Sharpe meets the league’s age requirement for draft eligibility in 2022, since he turns 19 later this year. The sticking point was the timing of his high school graduation. It was thought that he hadn’t graduated high school until after the current NBA season had already begun. In that case, a logical reading of the league’s eligibility rules would indicate that Sharpe wouldn’t have been eligible until the 2023 draft.
It turns out that the Kentucky freshman had already accumulated the necessary academic credits to be considered a high school graduate before the start of this NBA season, and that fulfilled the final requirement necessary for him to be eligible for the 2022 draft.
NBA scouts were also able to see Sharpe — a 6-foot-5 shooting guard — play in person at the Nike Peach Jam finals in July, the breakout series of performances that cemented his status as the No. 1 overall player in the 2022 recruiting class and a top-tier prospect for the league.
“The NBA has actually seen him. That’s a big part of it, too,” Branham said. “So, yeah, the expectation was if he wanted to be draft-eligible in 2022, all he had to do was file some paperwork, put the ball in the NBA’s court, and they would more than likely rule him eligible. And, obviously, it’s now official that he will be eligible regardless.”
What’s next for Shaedon Sharpe?
From Kentucky’s standpoint, the two biggest questions now are: 1) will Sharpe play for the Cats this season; and 2) will he be on the roster next season?
UK fans probably aren’t going to like those answers.
Sharpe’s basketball mentor and grassroots coach, Dwayne Washington, has talked in the recent past about the need for his star player to develop his game before thinking about a jump to the NBA Draft, and Washington told the Herald-Leader in late October that Sharpe entering the 2022 draft was “not an option” even if he was ruled eligible to do so.
“He will not be going to the NBA Draft,” Washington told the Herald-Leader then. “That’s not even something to talk about. That’s like saying, ‘Are you going to go to Mars tomorrow?’”
Washington also guided former UK guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander through his youth career and praised Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff for developing him to be ready to make an impact right away in the NBA.
The original plan, both Washington and Calipari have stressed in the past, was for Sharpe to practice only this season, work on his strength and conditioning, and be ready to make a major impact as a first-year player in the 2022-23 season.
That stance has gradually loosened over the past couple of months, with both sides leaving the door open to a debut at some point this season, though Calipari said two weeks ago that Sharpe was nowhere near ready to play in actual games.
“He’s a ways away from playing games,” Calipari said. “And it may be a year from now. … We don’t have a plan for him to play this year. Maybe he does, but that’s not the plan, and never has been.”
If he doesn’t play this season, he might not play for Kentucky at all.
Washington did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday, but the speculation in basketball circles is that Sharpe is most likely to enter the 2022 draft.
“I would be shocked if he’s here next season,” Branham told the Herald-Leader on Thursday afternoon. “I would be absolutely shocked.”
Branham operates the NBA Draft projection board for 247Sports, and his most recent update last week had Auburn freshman Jabari Smith in the No. 1 spot, followed by Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey.
He said Thursday that he would put Sharpe in that company for the 2022 draft.
“Talent-wise, top four. Easily,” he said. “He could be in the top three, in any order of Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren and Shaedon. And then I would put Paolo after those three when it comes to sheer talent.”
Questions remain about Sharpe’s motor and consistency on the court, however, and those questions might not be fully answered ahead of this year’s draft. Still, Branham said he would definitely have Sharpe in the top 10 of his next 2022 draft update, and he noted that the drop-off in prospect level following the group of Smith, Holmgren, Sharpe, Banchero and Ivey was a noticeable one, meaning the UK newcomer could likely be a top-five pick if he leaves this season.
Playing for Kentucky with relatively little time to prepare might jeopardize that stock.
“It’s really impossible to know,” Branham said of whether Sharpe would play for the Cats this season. “I’m leaning toward not. It’s a risky play. It’s really tough to enter into SEC play — not play a single minute of college basketball until you get into SEC play. … It’s not easy going into that. And you want to talk about financial risk … you come in and you struggle, and that’s several million dollars you’re talking about.”
Branham floated a scenario where Sharpe struggled over a handful of games this season and fell from the No. 5 pick to the No. 15 pick, for example. That would make for a large difference in projected earnings.
The No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft stands to make nearly $28 million over his first three seasons in the league (including the third-year option on rookie contracts). The No. 5 pick would make about $18 million, while the No. 15 pick — for comparison’s sake — would make a little more than $9 million.
Kentucky plays at No. 2 Auburn on Saturday, with games against Mississippi State, No. 7 Kansas, Vanderbilt and Alabama after that.
If Shaedon Sharpe leaves …
Sharpe’s commitment to Kentucky in the fall was viewed as a major victory for the Wildcats and a signal that UK’s status on the recruiting trail was returning to early Calipari-era levels, when the program was expected to be in the mix for several top-10 prospects in every class.
If Sharpe does opt to leave UK after this semester, it would be a particularly large hit to the 2022-23 roster. Without him, the Cats’ 2022 recruiting class — consisting of guards Skyy Clark and Cason Wallace, and wing Chris Livingston — is ranked No. 9 nationally, with no other realistic options for addition out of the high school ranks.
UK will definitely lose veteran guards Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz off the current team, with freshman star TyTy Washington a near-lock to be a one-and-done player, star center Oscar Tshiebwe likely to leave for the pros, and a few others expected to explore their options after the season.
Sharpe, who 247Sports now ranks as the No. 3 player in the 2021 class — behind only Holmgren and Banchero — was touted as a can’t-miss star on Kentucky’s 2022-23 roster and projected to be one of the most dynamic perimeter scorers in the country.
Lose him, and the outlook for the entire season changes.
“It’s a big hit. Honestly, it’s a huge, huge hit,” Branham said. “You’re going to have to go back into the (transfer) portal now, similar to the last time. Let’s say we knew this all along, Kentucky could have taken (top-five recruit) Nick Smith — could have taken another real bucket-getter — just to kind of hedge this bet.
“So now — if he does return — that’s obviously huge. But if he does go to the NBA Draft, like I expect this year, then that’s going to be a real hit to their recruiting class. And it’s going to be hard to make up that offensive firepower that Shaedon Sharpe is able to bring.”