‘The kid is not in a rush.’ Shaedon Sharpe’s mentor talks about his plans for next season.

·9 min read
Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe warms up on the court with teammates before a game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Rupp Arena on Jan. 15. (Alex Slitz/aslitz@herald-leader.com)

In a wide-ranging interview Friday afternoon, the basketball mentor and former coach of Kentucky freshman Shaedon Sharpe reiterated the star recruit’s plans to play for the Wildcats next season and addressed speculation on his NBA Draft status.

Dwayne Washington, who guided Sharpe through his youth basketball career and his college recruitment, told the Herald-Leader that he and Sharpe’s family were aware that the 18-year-old would be eligible for this year’s NBA Draft well ahead of the ESPN report that came out Thursday stating such.

Washington also said that Sharpe fully intends to play for the Wildcats next season.

ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony reported Thursday that Sharpe, who turns 19 in late May, would be eligible to apply as an early-entry candidate for the 2022 NBA Draft. It was previously understood that he would not be eligible for this year’s draft, since players must be one season removed from their high school graduation to be considered draft-eligible.

It turns out that Sharpe accumulated the necessary high school credits to graduate before the start of the NBA season, and the league would almost certainly rule in his favor if he does apply for this year’s draft.

“I already knew all of this information,” Washington said Friday. “This is not new.”

He said Sharpe and his family didn’t make a big deal out of his draft status, because they have not sought such a ruling from the league and the plan remains for him to play for Kentucky next season. Sharpe was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2022 class before deciding to enroll in classes at UK this semester and get an early start on his college career.

That plan included Sharpe joining the team as a practice player this season, learning the ropes of Kentucky basketball and adjusting to the next level of play in preparation for a starring role in the 2022-23 campaign.

Washington said that plan has yet to change. He pushed back against the idea that Sharpe would sit out the remainder of this season and then jump to the 2022 NBA Draft without ever playing for the Wildcats, noting that the five-star shooting guard declined a $3 million package to play in the G League this season — among other, even more lucrative pro offers — so he could come to Lexington instead.

“Why would he come to Kentucky — turn away $1 million in the G League, $2 million in endorsements, practice three hours a day — to sit on the bench? You come for development,” Washington said. “Here’s the thing that people have to understand: everybody is not trying to rush to something that they’re not ready for.

“He’s expecting to play next year. Nothing is new here.”

Washington also played a similar role in the early development of former Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who came to UK as the No. 31 recruit in his class, developed into the No. 11 pick in the 2018 draft in just one season with the Wildcats, and is now one of the best young players in the NBA.

Gilgeous-Alexander recently agreed to a new contract that will pay him more than $170 million over the next five seasons.

“Because we’ve been through this before, we understand that you have to be ready,” Washington said. “Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — four years ago at this time — nobody was saying that he was going to be a max (contract) guy. People have to relax. When you have people who know how the road goes, and you want a 15-year career, you must go through the fire to be ready. You jump there (too fast), now they put you in the G League. Or you’re with a bad team and you haven’t gotten coached and haven’t played — it doesn’t work.”

Washington scoffed at the idea that Sharpe, who is projected as a top-10 pick in the 2022 draft if he never plays a minute at Kentucky, should just sit out the rest of the season to protect that stock.

“If that’s the case, then every top-10 player should literally just train for a year, don’t go to college, and then go to the NBA. You wouldn’t be ready. There’s a social, emotional, teamwork (aspect), being coached, understanding systems, going through, I think, the best media in the world to prepare you for the NBA,” he said.

“Kentucky prepares you more. You come out of Kentucky, you can go to the Knicks or the Lakers and be ready. If you don’t go to Kentucky, it’s overwhelming.”

Shaedon Sharpe’s plan

According to his basketball mentor, the plan for Sharpe is the same now as it was several months ago, when it was first acknowledged that he might leave high school early to enroll in classes at Kentucky for the second semester of this season.

Sharpe is expected to be the star player on next season’s team, which — with the addition of top recruits Cason Wallace, Chris Livingston and Skyy Clark, and the expected return of several players from the current squad — is likely to be judged a preseason national title contender.

“He came early so he can be a leader for next year’s team,” Washington said. “… We came for development. The truth is, Calipari does develop. I know some people think he’s a developer and not a coach. All of that’s bull----. He develops. He develops the mind. He develops you being part of a team. He develops you being the best version of you.

“All of these guys that come to Kentucky — most of them — if they would’ve gone right to the league from high school, they wouldn’t still be there. They wouldn’t be getting second and third contracts.”

Washington said that is the focus for Sharpe. Not how much can be made off the rookie deal of a top-five or top-10 pick, but how much can be made over a 15-year career in the league, if he chooses the correct developmental path and doesn’t try to skip steps.

“You have to be ready,” he said. “You can’t rush it. ‘But he’s going to make 11 million dollars?!’ Yeah, but you could make 100 million more if you wait. These are the same people that want to get into the hot stocks. Whatever’s hot. They don’t put their money in Apple and leave it there. Every day, they’re looking at it, ‘It went down! Take my money out!’ Let it grow. Let it grow.”

Washington did acknowledge that plans can change, but — in the span of a conversation that lasted nearly 45 minutes — the only scenario he offered in which Sharpe goes to the 2022 NBA Draft is if he plays (and plays very well) this season.

“Now if Cal puts him in in two weeks and he’s scoring 20 points a game, and they get to the Final Four — of course he’s gone,” he said. “But if he doesn’t, they got him for next year. He’s not going to sit the bench and then go to the NBA. He could have gone to the G League and made money.

“This team right here should be the focus. And if Shaedon is fortunate enough to be a part of this team (on the court) — if Cal thinks he can help them — he will go down as one of the greats of Kentucky, because they will go really deep. And then everybody will forget about this.”

Washington said Sharpe is a competitor who wants to play and help the team in whatever way he can, but he’s also been on campus for only a few weeks and has had just a handful of practices with his new teammates.

Kentucky has also been clicking — especially in the backcourt — over the past several days, and any minutes that go Sharpe’s way later this season would almost certainly come from the established guard rotation of TyTy Washington, Sahvir Wheeler, Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz.

“The kid is not in a rush to get anywhere,” Washington said. “And if Cal doesn’t play him, he’s totally fine. Does he want to play? Hell yeah. Is he ready right now? No. Will he be ready in two weeks? Yes. Will they need him? We don’t know.”

Washington said Calipari has “100 percent” control over Sharpe’s playing status for this season, and no one is advising him to sit on the bench to protect his 2022 draft status, despite speculation from fans and analysts that Sharpe might do just that.

“They say, ‘The kid doesn’t want to play.’ That’s stupid,” Washington said. “If the kid didn’t want to play, he wouldn’t have come to the school.”

Calipari’s comments

The UK coach spoke briefly on Sharpe’s status at his Friday press conference previewing the Wildcats’ game against Auburn this weekend.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Calipari said of the ESPN report. “He plans on being here next year. He’s watching whether I play him or not this year — if he’s ready to be able to be in games, I’ll put him in. He’s a great kid, and he’s doing well. And he’s going to make practices even better. He’s only been here two weeks.

“But, at the end of the day, you know I’m going to be for kids. That’s how I do this.”

Washington said nothing that happened in the previous 24 hours should change anyone’s opinion on Sharpe’s future.

“He knows the kid’s not going anywhere,” he said of the UK coach. ”He knows if the kid doesn’t play, the kid’s coming back. Does Calipari look worried to you? Nope. Because everything we say, we do.”

Washington acknowledged Friday that there will be some people who read his comments and simply don’t believe them, expecting Sharpe to take the quick, guaranteed money that would come from entering this year’s NBA Draft regardless of whether he plays this season or not.

He stressed, however, that Sharpe’s outlook remains in the long term, and developing at Kentucky is the best path to achieving his ultimate goal of a lengthy, successful NBA career.

“You go there, because the people, the media, the coaching staff, the atmosphere creates something you cannot simulate,” he said. “Which makes it attractive to these top guys to come there and forgo millions; and to be able to make more later on, because you’re prepared. The fans need more credit. The media needs more credit. Cal needs more credit.

“A lot of guys that got drafted are no longer (in the league) in two or three years. Because they did not get prepared. Everybody in the NBA can jump or shoot or something. So why, every year, are they bringing in another fifteen 18-19-year-olds to take grown men’s jobs? Because they were not ready. Period.”

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