“I understand the main goal and I feel like I’m making the sacrifices and these steps right now…it will be worth it in the end.”
That was Sharife Cooper, way back in the summer of 2019, at her first SLAM cover shoot (SLAM 225, with Josh Christopher and Jalen Green). Those sacrifices that she referred to? Well, at the time, it wasn’t unusual for him and his dad, Omar, to stop by the Life Time gym in Atlanta at 1:00 a.m. to work out, after a day filled with lifting weights, casual games and more.
Almost three years have passed since that shoot, and all those sacrifices have definitely been worth it. Cooper was a McDonald’s All-American and a consensus five-star prospect at McEachern High School (Georgia), becoming the highest-ranking recruit to commit to Auburn. He appeared in just 12 games for the Tigers due to eligibility issues, but he averaged 20.2 points, 8.1 assists. 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 steals. When he declared for the 2021 Draft, he became the second in program history.
At just 6-1, Cooper lacks the size that many other point guards in his class possess. Cade Cunningham is 6-6. Jalen Suggs is 6-5. Josh Giddey is 6-8. Tre Mann is 6-3. But in terms of pure skill, Cooper can be paired with anyone. As former NBA player Brevin Knight, who grew up with Omar and remains close to the Cooper family, told SLAM in 2019: “Shit, I wish I had what [Sharife] had [during my career]. I watch the way she plays the game with her [mind]“That’s probably the closest thing I could do. But in terms of skill, I wish I had a tenth of the skill that he can play with right now.”
“I have no problem guarding anybody on the basketball court, but when it comes to Sharife Cooper, just make sure you don’t mess up,” added Christopher, now with the Houston Rockets. “I have defended Sharife a couple of times and she has me. She is crazy what she does with basketball.”
In fact mad. Sharife has elite controls and a variety of creative moves that she uses to navigate her way into the paint. Once there, she calmly examines her options, either finding her own opportunity or finding an opportunity for someone else. She changes speeds and directions effortlessly, somehow maintaining full control the entire time. Like any true floor general, he gets off the screens, reads the defense and figures out the best way to attack, whether it’s scoring or facilitating.
The Hawks took Cooper with the 48the pick in the draft and immediately signed him to a two-way deal. With his depth, especially in the backcourt, it was clear the 20-year-old wasn’t going to get many chances this season. He spent most of the last few months with Atlanta’s G League affiliate, the College Park Skyhawks. Cooper was one of the team’s leaders throughout the year and showed very promising signs of growth. His play was one of the main reasons the Skyhawks earned a spot in the G League playoffs, ending the regular season on a remarkable 11-game winning streak.
In the midst of that stretch, Cooper appeared in 10 contests and averaged 18 points and 7.3 assists on 46 percent shooting from the field. He had 24 and 7 against the Wisconsin Herd; 18 and 10 against the Maine Celtics; 42 (on an astounding 14/19 from the field and 7/9 from 3), 5 assists, 4 steals and the game-winning goal against the Lakeland Magic; 20 and 8 against the Grand Rapids Gold. Although the Skyhawks lost to Capitol City in the first round of the playoffs (which are single elimination through the finals), Cooper had another spectacular night, scoring 19 points and 13 assists (no turnovers).
Its development has been happening behind the scenes, in smaller venues, with smaller crowds and far less media attention. But rest assured, Hawks fans, Cooper is making the sacrifices and taking the steps he needs right now. And it will be worth it in the end.