NBA Draft prospect Shaedon Sharpe could have helped Kentucky — and himself — by playing for the Wildcats

There are some hypotheticals that can never be fully resolved. Like, would “The Godfather” still have been history’s greatest motion picture had the studios prevailed and someone other than Al Pacino had been cast as Michael? Would the Cubs have ended their championship drought sooner if everyone at Wrigley Field had remembered that winning the NLCS was more important than catching a foul ball?

We can debate, speculate and ponder, but history gave us what it did, for better and worse.

So we never can know if Shaedon Sharpe could have rescued Kentucky’s season.

We only know he did not.

And now we understand he never will play a game for the Wildcats, though he enrolled in school, went through practice and even pregame warmups. He has entered the 2022 NBA Draft and is expected to become a lottery pick.

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There are more than a few Kentucky fans angry about how this has developed, especially given how the UK season ended and how Sharpe’s college career is finished before it truly began.

A 6-6 guard who had been considered the No. 1 prospect in 2022 recruiting class before he enrolled early, Sharpe had a fantastic view of UK’s decline over the final weeks of the season. Guard TyTy Washington and wing Kelan Grady struggled with injuries and shot a combined 14-of-47 from 3-point range over the final six games, half of them defeats, including the stunning NCAA Tournament loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s. Sharpe had practiced nearly two full months by then, and his teammates were eager to see him attempt to help the squad. He never did.

This is because his adviser, Dwayne Washington of the UPLAY Canada AAU program, view that as an offer he could refuse.

It’s easy to suggest Calipari should have just disregarded Washington and sent Sharpe into whatever game seemed prudent — and necessary – but that would have been risking the program to possibly rescue the season. It wouldn’t just have cost UK future recruits connected to Washington, who helped develop Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michigan wing Caleb Houstan. That sort of thing gets around and could have banned Kentucky with any prospect the Wildcats coveted in the future.

Why Washington would refuse to allow Kentucky to play Sharpe when the player and his family were willing for him to take the court is not entirely clear. But anyone familiar with the myths that have enveloped the NBA Draft process for the past two decades can infer it was for fear poor performances might damage Sharpe’s standing with the teams pondering whether to draft him.

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This is indefensible. Had Sharpe struggled upon entering one of Kentucky’s games in the final months, it would not have been protracted. Calipari was not in an experimental mood in the stretch of the 2021-22 season. The team’s schedule was heavily backloaded, with four of the final six regular-season games against teams that would be seeded No. 6 or better in the NCAA Tournament. The margin for error was slim.

Here’s how easily regular-season performance can be dismissed by an NBA team if its front office sees something special in a young player: In his final eight games with the Alabama Crimson Tide, wing Josh Primo averaged 6.4 points and scored in double figures twice. In his final game, a Sweet 16 matchup against UCLA at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, he scored 6 points and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. At least two college basketball experts could not remember he was in the gym that evening. But no less a franchise than the San Antonio Spurs made him the 12th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

What if Sharpe had excelled, though? In this year’s draft, he is up against three freshmen who played full seasons and earned All-America honors: Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Auburn’s Jabari Smith and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. Banchero was the dominant figure on a Final Four team. Smith shot 43 percent on 3-pointers for a team that earned a No. 2 NCAA seed. Holmgren is 7-1 and went through a month where he shot 56.4 percent on 3-pointers for the team that became the NCAA’s No. 1 overall seed. Sophomore Jaden Ivey of Purdue averaged 17.3 points and has dynamism matched inside the league only by only young Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant and Lakers veteran Russell Westbrook.

Against all of that, Sharpe has no resume. This is not to say he will not be selected prominently. It is to say it will be difficult for any team to select him ahead of those players, at least, and it might not have been if he were a significant factor in a deep NCAA Tournament run by the Wildcats.

In an interview with The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker in late January, Washington acknowledged the value of being prepared to enter the NBA, saying, “How many guys have we seen go too early and they’re out of the league in three years?” The track record is somewhat modest for players who lately skipped over a significant competitive step in advance of entering the draft, whether it was college, international basketball or the G League.

Prep schooler Thon Maker, the 10th pick in the 2016 draft, has played in 263 career games, only eight of which were this past season, which he spent mostly in the G League. He never has averaged double figures. Neither has center Mitchell Robinson, though he averaged 8.6 rebounds for the last-place Knicks in his fourth season. Darius Bazley, who spent a year after high school interning for a shoe company rather than playing competitively, averaged 10 points in his third full season. Kenyon Martin Jr. averaged 8.8 points for the 20-win Rockets this season.

Guard Anfernee Simons has emerged as an exception, breaking through in his fourth season to average 17.3 points for the Portland Trail Blazers. Most of the others still have time to develop into excellent players, but none has been a smashing success.

Sharpe might become the first such player in the one-and-done era to contend for Rookie of the Year or be chasing playoff wins like such early career studs as Morant, Anthony Edwards of Minnesota and Tyrese Maxey of the Sixers, who played one college season at Kentucky.

Maxey, who has averaged 26.7 points through three playoff games in his second NBA season, never got to see the inside of the NCAA Tournament because the event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharpe got to see it, but only see it, and not for long. Too bad for him, and Kentucky. Who knows how it might have turned out?

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