Sharife Cooper spent the longest 72 days of his life wondering when he’d finally be able to get back on the basketball court. He had just started playing five-on-five again upon arriving at Auburn after being locked out of gyms as the pandemic swept through the country in the months following his legendary high school career. Now days before the Tigers were set to open the season, he got word the NCAA was investigating his eligibility.
Cooper sat on the sideline unable to practice as his teammates beat St. Joe’s in overtime in the opener and then got blown out by Gonzaga in a showcase game the next day. A month went by and he was still in the dark. As the calendar flipped to 2021 and Auburn began SEC play, Cooper wondered if he’d ever be cleared. Hours before Auburn was set to host Alabama, the message he was waiting for finally came through: Cooper was eligible to make his college debut.
“When I got to college, I got off to a good start, practice was flowing, and then I happened to be ineligible for something that was far out of my control,” Cooper told SB Nation. “That put a huge stop in my progress. But I think I made the most out of it.”
Cooper still hadn’t practiced, and was told he should only expect to play about 10 minutes. Instead, it became immediately evident the Tigers couldn’t afford to take him off the floor. Cooper shredded the nation’s No. 3 defense in the pick-and-roll, completed four beautiful alley-oop passes, and consistently forced his way to the foul line.
He ended the game with 26 points, nine assists, and a slew of highlight reel plays that put his incredible playmaking gifts on full display in a narrow Auburn loss. A long layoff, an elite opponent, and zero time to build chemistry with his teammates didn’t matter: Cooper still proved he could be the most dynamic creator in the country from day one.
Cooper’s college career came and went like a shooting star. He packed four years of highlights into 12 games, and ran up gaudy numbers on a young team with zero returning starters from the year before. He ended the season as one of only two freshmen in the past 30 years to average 20 points and eight assists per game, with the other being Trae Young. His 51.5 percent assist rate would have led America if he played enough games. He would have finished second in the country in fouls draw per 40 minutes if he qualified for the leaderboard.
While impressive, Cooper’s statistical profile also failed to capture the breathtaking nature of his game. This is a young point guard who plays with a raw electricity that can’t be measured. Cooper bent defenses off the dribble and broke them with his passing. His blazing quick first-step and endless combination of dribble crossovers put opposing guards into a blender all season. His panoramic vision and remarkable touch with either hand makes him an elite passer off the dribble against any competition. He seems to think a step ahead of the defense’s next adjustment, daring them with lobs to the rim and skips to the corner that feel more audacious with each attempt.
Cooper did it all while being the smallest guy on the court in almost every game he played. After one truncated year at Auburn, he’s now off to the 2021 NBA Draft. At 6’1 and 180 pounds, Cooper will immediately be one of the smaller players in the league. He also might already be one of its shiftiest ball handlers and most talented live dribble passers, too.
“I’ve played against 7-foot guys all my life,” Cooper said. “I don’t feel like it will be that much of a difference.”
Discount Cooper because of his size at your own peril. He’s been in complete control of almost every game from the moment he started in the sport.
Omar Cooper Sr. never had trouble finding a team for his daughter Te’a, who was recognized as one of the best players in the country from a young age and currently plays for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. Sharife was a different story. When he wasn’t competing against his twin brother Omar Jr. at the house, Sharife and his friend from down the street would pile into his dad’s car trying to find an AAU program that would take them.
Cooper took the boys to tryout after tryout around Atlanta, but they kept getting rejected by programs that already had their rosters in place. Little did they know Cooper was bringing two future NBA players with him to each stop: Sharife’s friend, one year ahead of him in school, was current Cleveland Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro.
The elder Cooper instead coached the boys in a local rec league with other kids from the neighborhood. During halftime of a local All-Star Game, the upstart coach got desperate. Down 18 at the break to a team that featured a young Anthony ‘Ant-Man’ Edwards, Cooper issued an ultimatum.
“I told them if they win the game, I would start an AAU program with this team,” Cooper Sr. said. “They came back and won the game. I had to honor my word. That’s how Athletes of Tomorrow got started.”
Sharife and his friends finally had their own team. The majority of the group would stick together throughout their youth careers and into high school by enrolling at McEachern High. McEachern had never won a state championship when Sharife enrolled but it quickly became apparent the Powder Springs, GA school suddenly had a pair of special talents on their hands.
With Cooper at point guard and Okoro as an athletic wing who shined on the defensive end, McEachern quickly turned into an area powerhouse. In Cooper’s freshman year, with Okoro as a sophomore, McEachern didn’t suffer its first loss of the season until the Final Four of the state playoffs. The next year, the team ran up another gaudy record but was upset in the state quarterfinals. After each season, Cooper, Okoro, and most of their teammates would head to the prestigious Nike EYBL circuit playing for the same team Cooper’s father started back when they were children.
Eight of the players on Athletes of Tomorrow were from McEachern. One of the only imports was Brandon Boston Jr., a product of nearby Norcross High, who would eventually attend Kentucky as a consensus top-five recruit and possible first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Atlanta’s recent basketball lineage — Jaylen Brown, Collin Sexton, and Edwards included — was suddenly getting a big boost from the same kids the rest of the city passed on.
Cooper had his coming out party on the national level after the sophomore season that ended in disappointment. He tore up the EYBL by averaging 28.2 points and 8.6 assists per game, a pair of a league-leading numbers that earned him EYBL Offensive Player of the Year honors. Suddenly, Cooper was a no doubt five-star with a growing list of offers from every important college basketball program in America.
Okoro gave his commitment to Auburn ahead of the next season to set the scene for his final year in high school. With Cooper now a junior and a talented cast of teammates maturing around them, something special was brewing at McEachern. Anything less than a state title was going to be considered a disappointment.
Despite massive expectations on their shoulders, McEachern was flawless. They beat prep powerhouses on the national level including Nevada’s Findlay Prep, Kansas’ Sunrise Christian, and California’s Rancho Christian on a team that featured Evan and Isaiah Mobley. The Indians also dominated locally. The school finished a perfect season at 32-0 in the state championship game with Cooper scoring 20 points and Okoro chipping in 16 points. McEachern had its first title.
Cooper and Okoro complemented each other perfectly as teammates, but it was the long hours guarding each other in practice that took each of their games to the next level. Okoro was the 6’6 wing with immense strength who was arguably the best defensive prospect in the country. Cooper was the tiny playmaker who kept the ball on a string, threw every pass, and consistently found a way to score. Each day, they went at each other to hone with own unique talents.
“That’s the only person that would guard me at practice,” Cooper said of Okoro. “Me and him would go at it every single day. That helped me a lot. That’s the best defender I’ve ever gone up against. Going up against someone like that gets you better.”
Cooper decided to follow Okoro once again when it was time to make his college decision. He committed to Auburn over offers from Kentucky and others. He was the highest-rated recruit in program history at the time of his commitment.
Cooper and Okoro never played together at Auburn after Okoro became a one-and-done and was eventually drafted No. 5 overall. Maybe that was the first hint Cooper’s college days would feel star-crossed and unfulfilled. If Cooper has it his way, that will only be a minor note in a much bigger story.
There are not many players in the NBA as small as Cooper. There also aren’t many who can cut up an opposing defense as ruthlessly off the dribble.
The NBA currently has 25 players listed at 6’1 or smaller by the league’s official measurements. Exactly 13 of them weigh 180 pounds or less. It’s a group that includes every walk of life in the NBA. There players on the fringes of the league (Yogi Ferrell, Mike James), change-of-pace guards who have carved out long careers off the bench (Ish Smith, Patrick Beverley), All-Star caliber starters (Kemba Walker, Mike Conley), and two players near and dear to Cooper’s heart: Chris Paul and Trae Young.
Cooper has been watching Paul in the NBA for almost his entire life — CP3 made his debut when Cooper was four years old — and credits him for helping ‘build (his) basketball mind.’ Young is more a recent favorite who followed a similar path. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans ranked outside of the top-15 in their class who rejected offers from Kentucky and other blue bloods to stay in-state before becoming a one-and-done. While Young was a freshman phenom at Oklahoma who made daily appearances on ESPN, Cooper’s long eligibility battle stopped the hype before it started.
“I feel like my whole life has revolved around basketball for so long,” Cooper said. “Whether it was playing it, watching it, or playing 2K. That’s where my basketball IQ comes from. I recognize how much thinking the game goes into it. Thinking the game is what separates good from great.”
Paul and Young each had one notable advantage over Cooper when they entered the draft: both were considered dangerous shooters. That’s still something Cooper is still looking to prove after shooting only 13-of-57 (22.8 percent) from three-point range at Auburn.
Cooper certainly isn’t lacking confidence in his shooting stroke. He was excellent from the foul line, making 82.5 percent of his free throws. There were moments when he hit nasty step-back threes, and even a few contested spot-ups. Those around him said it seemed like he didn’t have his legs under him early in the season after the long NCAA investigation kept him off the practice floor.
“I’ve always been able to shoot,” Cooper said. “I didn’t shoot it well this year, but when you come off almost a year and a half of not playing five-on-five basketball, it was tough for me to make that adjustment. I’ve proven a lot of people wrong in these workouts, and the combine. It’s going to be a long process, and I’m fine with getting it the hard way.”
If Cooper’s size and shooting are obvious shortcomings from a scouting perspective, his strengths are equally pronounced. His standstill burst and live dribble passing grade out extremely well on any scale. He sees angles other point guards would miss, and plays with a unique rhythm to his game that allows him to capitalize on his immaculate vision. For now, his best avenue for scoring the ball might be forcing his way to the foul line. He has the deception to beat his man off the dribble and fool a defender into fouling him around the basket.
Cooper may be small, but he’s never been afraid of contact.
“Growing up, I never played with fouls,” Cooper said. “We’ll play five-on-five and you can’t call a foul. I just got used to contact. I feel like the contact I get all the time in practice helps me go through it in games.”
Given his immense production during his short college career, it certainly doesn’t feel like a stretch to think there’s an alternate timeline where Cooper became a college basketball hero not dissimilar to Young at Oklahoma. Unfortunately, he was the victim of an NCAA investigation and postseason tournament ban that were completely outside of his control.
Instead, Cooper enters this draft as something of a high-upside swing in the mid-to-late first round. Every NBA team needs shot creation, and Cooper has a case that he offers more of it than any player in the class aside from presumptive top pick Cade Cunningham. Omar Cooper Sr. will represent him as the founder of LifeStyle Sports Agency, just as he represents Okoro and his daughter Te’a.
Top NBA prospects aren’t born overnight when they walk onto a college campus. Cooper has a body of work that includes spectacular offensive production and winning at a high level over the course of multiple years. His lack of size shouldn’t be so scary to a league that just watched Paul and Young thrive in the playoffs.
Cooper’s long wait is finally about over. He can’t wait to show you what comes next.