UK Recruiting

Calipari’s latest point guard target more interested in winning than recruiting

Bruce Pearl and John Calipari on their relationship

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl and Kentucky Coach John Calipari, rivals for a lot of years, talked about their relationship after UK's 92-72 win on Saturday.
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Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl and Kentucky Coach John Calipari, rivals for a lot of years, talked about their relationship after UK's 92-72 win on Saturday.

It would be difficult to find a high school basketball player who has had a better showing this season than Sharife Cooper.

A brief rundown of his excellence:

Cooper — a 6-foot point guard from the Atlanta area — is averaging about 26 points, seven assists and nearly five steals as a junior at McEachern High School.

He was named MVP of the recent City of Palms Classic in Florida and Tournament of Champions in Missouri — two of the biggest events in the country — before dropping 27 points in a nationally televised win at the Hoophall Classic in Massachusetts a few weeks ago.

Cooper has led McEachern to a 27-0 record and the No. 2 spot in the national rankings, a slate that has included seven victories over top-25 teams in the country.

He has been so impressive this season that, a couple of weeks ago, he was named the leading candidate for the MaxPreps national player of the year award, an honor that has never been given to a non-senior.

It’s been a whirlwind, but welcome, few months for the 17-year-old.

“This is what he wanted,” his father, Omar Cooper, told the Herald-Leader this week. “He was adamant about playing these types of schedules, playing really good teams all the time. He likes that. That’s what drives him — playing against good competition every day — he loves that.”

Cooper’s father is also his coach on the ultra-competitive Nike circuit, where their Athletes of Tomorrow squad had the second-best regular season record and Cooper (the Nike assists leader) was named the league’s offensive player of the year, despite being a class younger than most of the competition.

“Make us better” is a motto that Cooper’s father often relays to his son during summer play. This season at McEachern, the high school team has worn “We > Me” on the back of their jerseys, in place of individual names. Cooper is a natural fit for such mentalities.

“It starts with leadership,” his father said. “Regardless of what you’re doing, when you have partners and friends and teammates — each one should try to make each one better. As far as what I tell him, it’s ‘We lean on you to make the right decisions for us.’ Whether it’s take the shot or make the pass or get on somebody. Whether it’s cheer up somebody, get somebody some water, say thank you when somebody gets you some water — whatever it is, man, just embrace the fact that you need to make people better. … And he’s always embraced it.”

Those aren’t simply the words of a proud basketball father.

Anyone who has watched Cooper play much over the past few years has seen the same thing. At barely 6 feet, he might not look the part of a basketball superstar, but — once the ball is tipped — it becomes clear what Cooper is capable of.

“He’s a winner, pure and simple,” Rivals.com national analyst Eric Bossi told the Herald-Leader. “I think maybe, sometimes with players, we spend so much time worrying about the physical makeup and, ‘How athletic is he?’ and, ‘What’s his size compared to the ideal NBA size?’ — stuff like that. And, at point guard — more than any other position — I think sometimes you have to throw that out the window and just go by, ‘What is this guy doing?’ and, ‘What are the results?’ And what more could he do, in terms of measuring a guy’s impact on things?”

Rivals.com now ranks Cooper as the No. 16 overall prospect in the 2019 rankings — he was one of the biggest risers in the midseason update — and Bossi offered a lofty comparison when talking about the young recruit’s impact on those around him.

“He has a great feel for sensing early, ‘OK, do I need to be a scorer this game? Do I need to be a setup man? Do I need to be a little bit of both.’ I remember watching young Chris Paul play. … He had a great sense for when he needed to turn it on. He just had a feel for what to do. And I see a lot of that in Sharife,” the national analyst said.

“The guy wins. And you watch him on the court, and it’s about hooping. He’s not caught up with anything extra — he’s just caught up with showing up and winning. And he’s just a little baby-faced killer out there.”

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Cooper took a recruiting visit to Kentucky before the season, picking up a scholarship offer from the Wildcats following a meeting with John Calipari. He’s expected to visit again for the UK-Auburn game next weekend, though the Georgia state playoffs begin this week, and McEachern’s team schedule will take precedence over any recruiting trips.

“He likes Kentucky. He likes Coach Cal,” his father said. “Of course, he likes the program. He knows a lot of the players on the team, and they talk. … They love it up there.”

Auburn is the only other school that Cooper has visited. A few national recruiting analysts have even logged early predictions that the Tigers are the team to beat for Cooper’s commitment.

“I don’t know where they get that from,” his father said. “Sharife is wide open. Honestly, he’s not even thinking about college and college decisions. None of that. He’s really focused on getting better and his team getting better.”

Omar Cooper said there’s still plenty of time for his son to sift through the recruiting process.

He has the rest of this season — one that could end with a perfect record and, possibly, a national championship — then another summer on the Nike circuit and then his senior year of high school.

“He’s just trying to get better,” he said. “He’s a real basketball guy. You’ve got people who play basketball, and you’ve got basketball players. He’s more of a basketball player. He eats, sleeps and drinks basketball. So, the recruiting part of it, we ain’t gonna play that. That doesn’t excite him. It doesn’t strike his interest. It’s more about, ‘What are we doing today? Are we shooting? Are we playing? Are we lifting? What are we doing to get better?’ And that’s been his main focus.”

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.


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