Seven games is all it took for Sharife Cooper to establish himself as one of the most fun, creative players in the entirety of college basketball.
Through those seven games, Cooper is averaging 21.3 points and 8.1 assists despite shooting 6-32 from 3-point range. The shooting and the high turnovers (4.0 per game) are definitely high, but there's a ton to like: he finishes at the basket despite being a slender 6'0" point guard. He is taking 9.7 free throw attempts a game and is always in attack mode.
More than anything, Cooper is an incredibly heady point guard. He seems to always be one or two steps ahead of the defense, knowing where he wants to go and manipulating the defense so that he can get there. Few young players are better with their eyes to move their opponents.
That's where Cooper is most special, and we intend to show just how many special ways he's created offense through only seven games.
First and foremost for Cooper is how he's able to see cutters all around the court. His teammates are 10-12 on cuts after passes found by Cooper on the PNR, according to Synergy. His vision and control allows them to move all around the floor and trust that he'll hit them in stride.
Baseline cutters are constantly open, which is a huge factor out of the spread PNR. It allows his team to put a non-shooter in the corners, a slashing defender type like Isaac Okoro or Andre Roberson, and find a way to keep them on the floor by creating points for them:
Those guys get open out of the spread pick-and-roll at the next level, when the lane is completely unoccupied and both corners filled. But Cooper doesn't need that space in order to make great plays. He's adept at manipulating a rim protector to commit to him. Once the rim protector does that, either by stepping up or leaving his feet for verticality purposes, Cooper drops off a dime to a big man either stationed in the dunk box or rolling to the rim:
That level of manipulation is pretty high key. It's difficult to overestimate the impact of a guard who can get opposing bigs into the air. It speaks to how believable his moves are, and how impactful he's been as a finisher thus far. If he's not respected as a finisher, these bigs don't bite on his attempts as much as they do. It's why Sharife's passing is more tantalizing to me than LaMelo Ball's was a year ago.
Cooper doesn't need to be inside of 5 feet in order to manipulate a defense. He's great at looking one way with his eyes, seeing the defense off towards where he's looking, and then delivering a sneak pass to a teammate for a layup or dunk:
Credit Bruce Pearl for giving Cooper a long leash to Cooper so he can make plays like this. He's been given the keys to this offense and allowed to make anything inside of 23 feet his canvas.
Pearl helps him out a bit with some simpler reads out of the pick-and-roll, in particular for lob plays. They run some power actions that see a back screen for the picker, and Pearl clears out the entire back side so that there's an easy read. Cooper's eyes are only focused on the back screen, as he knows there is no back-side help to sniff out actions like this:
Great players don't need action like this to make impactful plays. But great coaches give it to them anyways. Huge Bruce Pearl fan here, and think Auburn is a legitimate sleeper in the NCAA Tournament waiting to happen.
Of course, the natural passing ability of Cooper is what makes him fun, not the plays or structure around him. He's an UNREAL passer with his non-dominant hand, throwing pinpoint lobs with his left on the move.
Cooper is definitely a flawed prospect. The shooting consistency is an issue. He's pretty small, and I want to see the finishing on a larger sample. He's not much of a mid-range jump shooter off the bounce. He's really small and could encounter defensive problems against the NBA's best.
But hot diggity is he fun and creative with the ball in his hands. It's hard to deny that he's an offensive hub tailored for the next level. While he was in the top-25 for us preseason, coming in at 21 overall. He's rising up boards quickly with how he has produced at such a high volume for the Tigers.