Moses Moody‘s winding path to NBA | Arkansas star had a good meeting with Knicks

Is Moses Moody the New York Knicks’ trade-up target?

Everything Moses Moody did in the last few years was to get closer to his NBA dream.

Now that he’s on the NBA doorstep, he feels confident with the preparation he did to meet the challenge.

“I’ve been playing basketball for as long as I remember. NBA has always been a goal my whole life. That’s been the why to a lot of things I did — the workouts, waking up early, even just doing the right thing,” Moody said during his NBA Draft media availability Friday.

In 2019, he joined what many viewed as the most talented high school team at Montverde.

He played alongside Cade Cunningham, the projected top overall pick of this class, Scottie Barnes, and Day’Ron Sharpe.

“That team was great. It was a lot of fun. Those are my guys. We got good relationships. This was always a dream, a goal for all of us,” Moody said.

“With the network I have and the group of friends, we’re just pushing each other to be great.”

After learning to play off the ball in a star-studded Montverde team, he joined Arkansas and became the Razorbacks’ go-to guy in a memorable Elite Eight run in the NCAA tournament.

Moody led Arkansas in scoring and finished third in the SEC with 16.8 points per game on a 43/36/81 shooting split. More importantly, he led the Razorbacks in plus-minus at +309. Clearly, Moody impacted winning as one of the only three NCAA freshmen who averaged over 15.0 points and 5.0 rebounds.

Moody was the clear-cut best player on a college team stacked with veterans that essentially played an NBA system.

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman has NBA pedigree. Musselman learned the ropes from his father Bill then he grew into his own man coaching the Golden State Warriors and the Sacramento Kings.

Musselman’s staff have held various NBA jobs. Keith Smart, a former NBA player, was an assistant coach with the Knicks under David Fizdale before he joined Musselman at Arkansas. Clay Moser was an advanced scout in the NBA and a former D-League head coach.

“I do feel like that gave me a little bit of headstart playing in that system with a lot of pro coaches. Everybody has really been advanced when it comes to that aspect,” Moody said.

At Arkansas, Moody learned NBA terminologies. He conducted himself like a pro immersing in analytics coaching, advanced stats and film breakdowns much like he would encounter in the next level.

Last year was an introduction to the NBA. Now, he is ready to take the actual test. But on which team? That’s still being debated and will be known on Thursday.

“If they draft Moses Moody, I feel like they’re getting a versatile player that can play on both sides of the ball and help, in many ways as possible, to win games,” Moody said. “There are no point blanks, there are no periods to what I can do. I feel like I can do whatever my coach wanted me to do. I’m fluid and I can adapt to any situation.”

When he was young, Moody was always the lanky tall kid who dreamed of being Kevin Durant. Now with a size (6’4.5 without shoes) shorter than Durant, he has learned to adapt.

He said he picks up different things from different players like his midrange game from Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum.

But what will separate him from Beal and McCollum is if he realizes his potential to become a better two-way player than them in the next level.

Moody’s wingspan of 7’0.75, tops among guards in this draft, gives him a headstart in that category.

“I just like to learn and acquire knowledge,” Moody said.

If Moody got a headstart to NBA introduction, one NBA team also enjoyed a headstart when it comes to intel on the Razorbacks’ star wingman.

Musselman’s early years in NBA coaching under his father coincided with Tom Thibodeau’s. Musselman and Thibodeau forged a friendship that could come to the fore as the Knicks are looking for wings and shooting in this draft.

Moody, Musselman’s best player at Arkansas last year, perfectly fits that role. But it’s unsure if Moody will still be there when the Knicks select at 19th and 21st in the first round.

Maybe, Moody is a target as the Knicks are reportedly looking to trade up or it could be a smokescreen.

Moody said he hasn’t been invited to a workout yet in New York though he met Thibodeau and the Knicks’ front office at the Draft Combine in Chicago.

“We had a really good meeting. I got to know a lot of guys in the front office as well as coach [Thibodeau]. It was a really great interaction, and I got a good feel for their system and their plan for the team,” Moses said.

The Knicks’ surprising playoff run last season was anchored by Julius Randle’s growth to an All-NBA player and RJ Barrett’s leap as a sophomore.

Moody could see himself playing in between them as their two-guard with Barrett sliding to small forward.

“They really had a good team as you guys saw this year,” Moody said. “Shooting is one thing — a translatable skill that I can bring anywhere I go. And other than that, I can play off the ball, with the ball in my hand, create for others and I will just add offensive help to the team as well on the defensive end.”

Everything Moody did up to this point is to realize his NBA dream.

From winning a state championship in Little Arkansas to going on a 25-0 run at Montverde with future NBA elite talents and finally, getting NBA coaching from Arkansas, Moody went through a lot of different environments to grow himself into one of the most complete prospects heading into Thursday’s NBA Draft.

“You’ve got to be different to make it to the NBA. If you want different results, you have to do something different along the way,” Moody said.

On Thursday, Moody will certainly get the result he wanted. His winding path to the NBA reaches its end. It’s time to begin another path towards a Hall of Fame career. And he plans to do it exactly how he reached this far.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Trey Murphy III on the rise: Is he the 3-and-D prospect the Knicks wanted?

Trey Murphy, Knicks

Around this time, Trey Murphy III should have been preparing for his ACC debut with the Virginia Cavaliers. But things quickly changed, just like how his stock has rapidly risen in the NBA Draft boards.

Murphy, one of the best wing shooters in the draft, is projected to go in the first round on Thursday’s NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, Basketball News, and Bleacher Report have mocked him to the New York Knicks.

That idea looked to be far-fetched a year ago when he transferred from Rice University to UVA.

“He wanted to redshirt. That was the plan but once we got him in, [we, coaches, are telling him] ‘you can’t redshirt, you’re too good. You’ll have to get bigger and stronger but we’ll figure that out as we go but we need your ability to shoot the ball, stretch the floor,” UVA associate head coach Jason Williford told Empire Sports Media.

“What he learned in a year with us is how to defend, how to be consistent on that side of the ball.  We challenged him to rebound a little better. And I think he got better with his finishing.”

Murphy went on to average 11.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists with an outstanding 50/43/93 shooting split. He is one of the most efficient college players in attacking the rim and scoring from the outside, according to Shot Quality. Combined with his length and athleticism, that skill sets make him one of the most intriguing prospects.

Murphy has worked out with several teams, including the Knicks, per Jonathan Macri of the Knicks Film School. But he’s been trending up in the lottery with the Golden State Warriors, who own the 7th and 14th picks, asking for a second workout, according to Bleacher Reports’ Jonathan Wasserman.

Williford was one of the first coaches who saw Murphy’s NBA potential. The 21-year assistant college basketball coach spent time in North Carolina scouting a reed-thin Murphy who starred for Cary Academy. Murphy was already a deadly shooter — 24.7 points on a 49/44/86 shooting split — out of high school, but his body was still raw.

“At that time, he was 6’4, maybe 6’3 ½ and 160 lb soaking wet. He was a thin kid. And so, I didn’t think he was quite big enough, physical enough for the ACC,” Williford said.

After growing his body and his game at the much smaller Rice University in Houston, Murphy transferred to the 2019 NCAA champions for bigger exposure and development. Williford thought it was the perfect time as they were looking for someone to fill up the slot vacated by De’Andre Hunter, who moved on to the NBA as the fourth overall pick.

On track to follow Hunter in the NBA, Murphy helped himself at this year’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago when he measured 6’7.5″ without shoes with a 7’0 wingspan.

“Once he got to that size and with his ability to shoot, I thought he got a legit chance,” Williford said. “When we got him as a transferee, I talked to several people to keep an eye on this kid. Little did I know we’d only have him for one year. I thought we’d have him for a couple of years.”

With the Cavaliers’ season cut short by a first-round upset at the hands of Ohio State after a bout with COVID-19 issues, Murphy’s junior season flew under the radar. But scouts have always raved about the combination of his length, mobility, and shooting.  

“He’s a prototypical NBA player with his size and his ability to shoot. He just fits the style of what the NBA likes and what they are right now,” said Williford.

The shooting has always been there for Murphy. But at Virginia, coach Tonny Bennett wanted him to learn more about individual and team defense concepts. Often tasked to lock up the opposing team’s best player, Murphy hit some strides defensively.

(Editor’s Note: UVA coach Tony Bennett wasn’t made available for this story as he was on a scouting trip.)

“He brought [shooting] element to our team. He was able to stretch the floor and part of his reason for picking us is because he wanted to better himself defensively,” Williford said. “He got better as the year progressed. He got better defensively. That’s what he’ll bring to the next level — a guy who can play both sides of the floor, guard multiple positions and shoot the 3-ball.”

But Murphy is far from a finished product. He could have a better shot at ending in the draft lottery next year. But Williford can’t fault the kid as Murphy’s stock continued to rise after he initially entered his name in the draft to test the waters.

“Selfishly, I wished we had him for one more year. But he’s moving up in teams’ draft boards. It’s the right decision for him and his family. This is a once-in-a-lifetime dream,” Williford said.

Murphy’s work ethic can’t be questioned. He got it from his father, Kenny, Jr., a sharpshooter for the East Carolina Pirates in the late 80s.

“He’s always one of the first in the gym, getting shots up. He had a very good work ethic. One of the last [players] to get off the floor and will come in again to take extra shots. He works extra hard to try to get stronger and improve his body with our strength and conditioning coach. That was instilled in him early. He got that from his father. He was his AAU coach. He’s been doing that for as long as I’ve known him,” Williford said.

Working mostly as a catch-and-shoot player on offense at Virginia, there’s still an immense potential waiting to be unlocked. Murphy has just started scratching the surface.

“I think he’s gonna need to put on more weight. He’s a hardworking kid. He’s a gym rat. He’s gotta be bigger and stronger on who De’Andre Hunter was for us. De’Andre is a little more physical but I think Cameron Johnson of the Phoenix Suns is a good comparison for Trey,” Williford said.

While Johnson blossomed into a solid 3-and-D role player for the Suns who advanced to the NBA Finals this season, Murphy has set the bar higher. He wants to become an NBA All-Star.

“My first year, obviously, you can’t really control a lot except for your effort and energy. I’m going to have to learn to make my adjustments. Over time, I want to become an All-Star. I want to be really good at the game of basketball and I want to win a lot and play for a long time,” Murphy said after working out with the Los Angeles Lakers more than a week ago.

Williford said he spoke to about 10 different NBA teams about Murphy, with names of some of those teams escaping his memory. But he was sure none of them came from the Knicks though he noted that the Brooklyn Nets have reached out and shown a level of interest.

Williford feels that Murphy has been underrated in mock drafts. He believes Murphy could outplay his draft position wherever that would end up.

“Quite honestly, the NBA game is a lot different than college. The floor will be spaced more. I think you’ll see him get out in transition and finish plays at the rim. He’s a good jump shooter for his size, very good athlete in getting out on the floor. He’s gonna come in and knows how to play defense. He’ll be coachable. Expect him to play as hard as he can defensively and guard multiple positions,” Williford said.

But his ability to knock down outside shots will be his calling card in the NBA.

Forgoing one more year to develop in Virginia could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Murphy.

“I think he still needs to get better but there’s no better way to get better at those at that level than working on basketball 24/7 which will be his new job,” Williford said.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks Draft Watch: Belgium’s unicorn Vrenz Bleijenbergh takes a giant step to his NBA dream

Belgian prospect Vrenz Bleijenbergh grew up as a Knicks fan. Will the Knicks make his NBA dream come true?

Imagine a 6’11 point guard with a 7’1 wingspan in the NBA. That’s unheard of.

But Belgium’s best-kept secret, Vrenz Bleijenbergh, aims to become the first one. The unicorn has been flying under the radar in a country best known for its chocolates, waffles, and beer, and soccer as its no. 1 sport.

“Basketball is not really big in Belgium. The league there is also not big. That’s a bit of a negative factor in my career,” Bleijenbergh told Empire Sports Media after his workout in Sacramento last Monday. “If I had played in Spain, Italy, or France, it would have been way easier for me to be on the radar. But I just take it as it is and I’m just proving myself right now and it’s paying off.”

Bleijenbergh missed the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago after his papers were not processed on time. But ever since he arrived in the United States on the fourth of July, he’s been making up for the lost time.

From four pre-Draft workouts initially scheduled for him, that list grew to 13 teams after an impressive stint in the massive pre-Draft workout in Minnesota last week.

So far, he’s conducted workouts and interviews with Oklahoma City, Memphis, Minnesota, New York, Sacramento, and now he’s in Charlotte. Next on his tight schedule is Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Toronto, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.

The dizzying schedule has kept his body sore. But he’s embracing the pain.

As the cliche goes, “No pain, no glory.”

“I got like 13 workouts in 20 days. It’s really tough for me. I had a 20-hour flight from Belgium and have been traveling to different cities since then. It’s been tough, but if you have a goal, and it’s your dream, you got to go through all the pain and gotta show up,” Bleijenbergh said.

His workout with the Knicks over the weekend included first-round prospects Joshua Primo of Alabama and Jaden Springer of Tennessee. There were six of them who worked out with Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau walking around the facility as his skills coaches put them on different kinds of drills.

“I had a great workout with [Knicks], all of them by the way. But in New York, it was a lot of 3-on-3, 1-on-1 basketball. A lot of shooting too,” he said.

The Belgian prospect has an affinity to the Knicks because he grew up watching them.

“When I was a young kid, I’m really a New York Knicks fan because of Carmelo Anthony. I really liked the Garden. My best friend is also a die-hard Knicks fan,” Bleijenbergh said. “I watched them last year. They had like a bad year before and this year seemed better. And I hope for them to keep going and do better.”

He hopes he made quite an impression to become part of that special group under Thibodeau. He had a great interview with the team, including a talk with GM Scott Perry.

Bleijenbergh grew up in a small town called Brasschaat, known as a park town in Belgium. There are no skyscrapers. But it has its own version of the SoHo district with a long high street lined with various shops, cafes, and bars.

“New York is a great city. It’s one of the biggest cities in the US. There’s a big difference compared to Belgium. But I really like the people around here,” Bleijenbergh said. “So, New York has really been great as a franchise but I would love to go to the team that really believes in me, that will really work with me to reach my potential.”

His potential has always been there since he held a ball 16 years ago.

“I started playing basketball when I was four years old with the same club I’m still in it. I’ve been with the same club for 16 years now. I grew up from the youth [team] to the second team and to the first team and I’m kinda trying to make the next step,” he said.

Bleijenbergh led Belgium to a bronze medal finish in the 2018 FIBA U18 European Championship Division B in Macedonia. He was named to the All-Tournament Team after averaging 13.5 points, eight rebounds, a tournament-high six assists, and two blocks per game.

At the age of 16, he left high school and focused on his NBA dream. He turned pro, declining offers from big NCAA programs such as UCLA, Arizona, Texas Tech, and Kentucky, among others.

“In Belgium, it’s difficult to combine school and basketball. I didn’t finish high school yet so I can’t go to college. So, I decided to go pro at 16 years old,” Bleijenbergh said.

He felt that playing against grown men will fast-track his development.

“I always wanted to be an NBA player. But I really think I became closer [to my dream] when I started playing for the U16, U18 team for Belgium. That’s when it hit me that I really wanted to be a professional player,” he explained.

“When I became a professional player, I really wanted to go to the NBA because it’s just like a dream for everyone. But when I became stronger, I grew taller, and I was like 18, I was really thinking about the possibility of playing against great basketball players. I really felt I could make it because of the talent I got and the hard work I put in. So, when I turned 18, I really decided to go all-in for it,” he added.

He played point guard even though he was tall enough to play the wing or even the center position. His court vision and passing skills have held him back from being pigeonholed as a big man, making him such an intriguing prospect at a time when basketball has become positionless.

“I was always a point guard even at my younger age,” Bleijenbergh said. “I was a backup point guard when I started my professional career and I was really lucky that I have the best court vision at my young age. Because in Belgium, if you’re tall, you’re a center and if you’re small, you’re a point guard. But I always had the vision and the passing skill to be a point guard. So now I’m a 6’11 point guard.”

His rare combination of size and unique skill set has drawn him to another European unicorn Luka Doncic from Slovenia. The Dallas Mavericks’ rising superstar is the one guy he’s been looking up to as no player in Belgium made it to the NBA. Former NBA journeyman DJ Mbenga technically was the first Belgian to play in the NBA, but he’s a Congolese who holds a dual citizenship with Belgium.

Bleijenbergh has been diving into Doncic’s films a lot after practice.

“I really like his game, how he plays and how he sees the floor. I really look up to him,” he said. “What I liked most about Luka’s game is the way he plays the pick and roll game, how he finds open teammates, how he’s creating space for himself, how he’s shooting the ball out of pick and rolls, finding the roll man. That’s how I like to play, too.”

Scouts have raved about Bleijenbergh’s playmaking and ballhandling. He runs the floor in a fluid motion for his size.

It also helps that he’s played against NBA-caliber talent, getting necessary experience against the likes of Milos Teodosic, Marco Belinelli, and one-time Knick Mindaugas Kuzminkas, among others.

His numbers consistently jumped throughout his first three years as a pro. Antwerp Giants eased him into the rotation, starting with 7.5 minutes per game until it peaked at 26.1 minutes last season. He averaged 9.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game with a 38/34/68 shooting split in his final season in Belgium’s pro league.

His shooting percentages aren’t that solid, but his shooting motion has been fluid. Despite his length, he’s only averaged two free throws a game, as he mostly operated from the perimeter.

It’s something that he’s working on as he prepares to jump to the NBA.

“Getting stronger – I think that’s the biggest thing I need to improve on. My talent is there but I think if I get just a little bit stronger, the more I can create space for my teammates. It will be easier for me to finish strong closer to the basket,” he said.

Coming from Europe, where the game is played differently, Bleijenbergh is confident that he can easily adapt to the NBA.

“[The game here is] more of an isolation game. I’m a team player. In Europe, we do a lot of sets, a lot of team plays. Here’s a little bit different – more on isolation game and talent. It’s also good for me because I’m very versatile and can play many different positions. I like to be here, and I’m really enjoying it,” he said.

“I can play with the ball in my hands, play off the ball. I can catch and shoot. I can go into a defensive role. I can spot up. I can find open teammates. I’m pretty long, athletic, and pretty quick so I can also go on the open floor, grab rebounds and run it to keep the tempo up. So that’s the kind of player I am.”

Bleijenbergh had been encouraged by the feedback he’s been receiving from the teams he visited so far. His confidence is growing after every workout.

“I think I have the chance to get picked in the first round. I’m just a little bit under the radar,” Bleijenbergh said. “I’ve been grouped with a lot of lottery picks and maybe I was even better in the workouts. But we’ll see. It’s difficult for guys from Belgium, who’s not predicted to be in the first round. But I think I’m a first-round talent. I’m really positive about it.”

European prospects have become a hit-or-miss target recently, except for Doncic, who is a generational talent. Bleijenbergh doesn’t come from a European nation with a reputation for producing NBA players. But there are signs that he’s the chosen one in his country to become a trailblazer.

“It’s not a lot of pressure because nobody has reached it yet,”Bleijenbergh said. “So, I’m trying to be the first one, and it’s going to be a big achievement for me because I’m really working hard on it. I really want to make it. And it’s also good to put Belgium on the map. I always love to play for my country.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

LOTTERY-BOUND I 10 lottery teams eye Auburn star I Bruce Pearl to NBA teams: Sharife Cooper is a ‘once-every-10-year’ point guard

knicks, sharife cooper

There are two particular big games in Sharife Cooper’s young career that convinced his coaches he’s going to be an elite point guard in the NBA.

In 2019, with McEachern’s perfect season on the line, Cooper led the Indians to a come-from-behind win against his AAU teammate-turned rival BJ Boston and Norcross in the state semifinals.

“I’ll always remember playing against Norcross in the state semifinals during his junior year,” McEachern coach Mike Thompson told Empire Sports Media.

The game was a rematch of the previous year’s quarterfinals, where Norcross knocked off Cooper’s team. It looked like a deja vu was in the offing.

“At halftime, we’re getting beat. He and Isaac (Okoro) were not playing very well. Sharife had not played well in his freshman or sophomore year in the last game that we had. And I wore him out really bad. I got on him as hard as I’ve ever got into a kid at halftime,” Thompson recalled.

Then something happened. Cooper turned on the switch button.

“He looked me in the eye and took everything that I’ve said. He went out and dominated the second half against Norcross and took us to the state championship. And we won the state championship,” Thompson said.

Cooper willed the Indians to an epic 66-62 win. He led the scoring with 26 points while Okoro, his partner-in-crime and the fifth pick in last year’s NBA Draft with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had 18 after the duo combined for only eight in the first half.

“[Sharife] was very coachable and I was always excited for him because I felt like that was the time he took the most pressure-packed moment and he turned into the very best player in that situation. That I will never forget,” Thompson said.

That year, the Indians went undefeated in 32 games for McEachern’s first state title in school history and became the first undefeated team in the highest Georgia classification since 1995. Cooper averaged 27.2 points, 8.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 steals per game in an MVP season that spilled over several tournaments after that historic run. Prior to his stellar high school career, his AAU team went undefeated during his middle school.

Fast forward to January of this year, Cooper’s much-anticipated college debut after missing Auburn’s first 11 games due to eligibility issues.

“Players of less character and less commitment to the team would have walked away,” Bruce Pearl told Empire Sports Media.

“He came in everything that he was allowed to come to. He was 100 percent supportive of his teammates throughout that process. And I tell you what, that is rare. That fervent leadership with nothing to be gained by him. He was gonna stay ready.  He missed 72 days of practice. And the night before we played Alabama, an early afternoon game, he found out he was eligible and he came out the next day. He scored 23 in the second half in his first game.”

Cooper is a hooper. Without a single practice in the last two-and-a-half months, he was thrown into the fire but still dominated the game. He overcame a jittery start and ended up with a game-high 26 points and nine assists in a narrow 94-90 loss to in-state rival Alabama.

Right at that moment, Pearl saw up close how special Cooper is. He was as good as advertised.

“Sharife is a once-every-ten-year fast-breaking, playmaking, transition, and ball-screen floor general with his ability to make plays for himself and others,” Pearl said.

Cooper supercharged a lethargic Auburn offense. He produced 39.6 points per game via his own scoring or assists, the best in all of the college basketball last season, per Synergy. He tops all guards in the upcoming NBA Draft in points created via assists, per Shot Quality.

In the 12 games that Cooper played, Auburn averaged 83 points while its offense sputtered and coughed up only 72.5 points in 15 games without him. 

 

“He had a pied piper effect. He has the ability to bring other guys along with him which is great for a point guard,” Pearl said.

Ira Bowman, Pearl’s assistant coach and the guy assigned to Cooper during his time in Auburn, marveled at the point guard’s effect on the team.

“[Sharife] is one of those guys who see what the group needs. He is the guy that’s gonna be vocal when he needs to. He’s a leader by example guy but he’s a guy that brings people together. There are guys who are good distributors, good playmakers but he’s the type of guy that makes people around him really, really good,” Bowman told Empire Sports Media in a separate interview.

“Sharife is a unique player. I’ve been in the SEC for five years but I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve been around and he’s a sponge for the game. He has certain God-given gifts that you can’t teach. His ball-handling, his passing, his vision, his leadership are unparalleled.”

The NBA Playoffs saw how Trae Young made Clint Capela a lob threat, how Chris Paul unlocked Deandre Ayton. Cooper had the same effect on every team he’s played with, from AOT in the AAU circuits to McEachern and Auburn.

“If you look at Isaac Okoro, who was the fifth pick in last year’s Draft, he’s a much different player when he was playing with Sharife. You talk about BJ Boston, looking at a lot of these mock drafts they have him in early second round. But when he played with Sharife, he was a Top-5 player in his class. Then there’s Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and so on,” Bowman said.

“That’s just kind of what he does because he’s elite with playmaking, passing with either hand. Because no one can stand in front of him and he can get to wherever he wants to go on the floor. He’s naturally gifted who looks to make a pass first and find easier shots for the other guys. Again, there are people who train their whole life that can’t do those things and he’s naturally gifted,” Bowman said.

The Cooper effect in Auburn was on full display during his brief stint there.

In the 12 games Cooper played, Cambridge had 8 double-figure games. JT Thor, the other Auburn player expected to go in the first round of the NBA Draft, had also hit in double figures in eight games. Flanigan did it in 11 games, including four with at least 19 points.

In the 15 games without Cooper, Cambridge could only hit the double-digit mark in just six games, Thor in eight games, and Flanigan in 10 games.

“I felt like at Auburn, if they had anybody who could knock down shots, he might have averaged 20 assists a game there,” Thompson said.

Cooper will greatly benefit from the floor spacing and better overall talent in the NBA than the young team he had at Auburn.

As much as he’s adept in making plays, he’s also producing buckets in a variety of ways. Those are the two swing skills that intrigued Pearl when Cooper was making waves in Georgia.

“His ability to score and play in traffic. That being undersized, you thought physically you could bounce him around. But he has an uncanny way of delivering passes on time, and on target, and scoring in really crowded places. The other thing is he is ambidextrous. Whatever he could do with his left hand, he could do with his right hand,” Pearl said.

It’s so easy to nitpick his size or the lack of it. But Bowman swears he doesn’t see Cooper regressing in the next level.

Despite being undersized, Cooper has that competitive edge, dog mentality which Bowman attributed to his father Omar, who grew up in the New Jersey-New York area before uprooting his family to Atlanta.

“When you go up against Sharife, the things that you’ll realize is that he’s faster than you think, he’s bigger than you think, he’s stronger than you think. I’ve been around him probably half his life and I haven’t seen him bullied on defense and I’m a thousand (percent) sure it won’t happen in the next level,” Bowman said.

Cooper joined Young as the only freshmen to average 20 points and eight assists in college basketball in the last 30 years. Aside from sharing that record with Young, Cooper also draws comparison to the Hawks’ rising superstar for his propensity for drawing fouls. In 12 games with Auburn, Cooper averaged 8.6 attempts and converted a solid 83 percent.

“I think he’s gonna be a championship-level point guard who’s gonna be a multiple All-Star guard. I’ve been around long enough. I watched Kyrie as a freshman — before he went to St. Patrick’s School, before he became who he was. I watched Chris Paul before what people thought he was. The crazy thing is that Trae Young, having the success that he’s having now, Sharife did what Trae did in the EYBL circuit,” Bowman said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the teams that doubted Donovan Mitchell, that doubted Trae Young, they will be the same teams who’ll wish they have [Sharife] because again the things he brings to a team, you can’t teach,” he added.

The last seven NBA champion teams have an elite point guard — Tony Parker (Spurs), Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers), Stephen Curry (Warriors), Kyle Lowry (Raptors), and Rajon Rondo (Lakers). Paul is trying to join that club this season. Young could soon follow.

Each point guard has his own strengths and weaknesses but what stand out is the elite vision, playmaking, and championship poise that propelled their team to greater heights.

Cooper possesses those qualities. If there’s an only blemish on his dominant college run, it was his shaky outside shooting. But his coaches believe that he is a better shooter than what his 23-percent clip from the three-point range suggests.

“I think because he’s so gifted getting into the rim and getting others the ball that his mindset was to make a play and score first, shoot last,” Pearl explained. “That was a function of why he didn’t shoot a great percentage. And of course, he didn’t have a lot of opportunities. I think he’ll really be a good NBA shooter because there will be times when he will be hunting for his shot. He’s so productive breaking his opponent down. That’s his first and second thought.”

Bowman offered another layer of context.

“People say, look at his shooting percentages. But he’s a much better shooter than his shot and the numbers he showed in the sense that he played the season after sitting out for 72 days of practice and never really got his legs. All the stuff that he does, he’s a leader. I’ve been in this [coaching] for a while and never coached a kid that can do everything on the floor. And obviously, he’s gonna will his way to be a great player. He will never be satisfied with being great,” Bowman said.

“As far as working on his game, he’s shooting thousands of shots a day. The percentages don’t show where he is but he’s always been a good shooter. He’s gonna be a great shooter with a year of training camp because like I said, he jumped right in the middle of the season and didn’t have his legs and played catchup for the rest of the year. Because he’s so gifted in doing the other things and nobody can stand in front of him, it’s just one of those things where he got settled with some of those shots. So, I’m not concerned at all.”

Thompson, meanwhile, pointed to Cooper’s shooting display in his Pro Day at the Draft Combine in Chicago to prove that it was just an outlier.

“He shot it really well during his junior year and I think he really did a work on that heading into the Draft Combine and his Pro Day. And he showed in his Pro Day that he can really shoot well. As a matter of fact, he got a standing ovation from a lot of executives,” Thompson said.

In the EYBL circuit during his junior year, Cooper shot 35 percent on 5.7 attempted 3s in 10 games, per Real GM. There were no available statistics that show his shooting percentages during his undefeated run with McEachern. But his solid free-throw shooting clip in college provides hope that Cooper’s struggle from long-distance at Auburn is just an aberration.

More than 20 NBA teams have reached out to Pearl and spoke with him at great length about Cooper. All of them had the same question: “At his size, what do you think? Is he gonna make it as a star in the NBA?”

“That question has always been asked. It’s been asked in his high school career and he was the national player of the year and went undefeated during his junior season. It was asked in college and he averaged 20 points and almost 10 assists. And so, it’s gonna be asked at the next level but Sharife has always proven everybody wrong. That’s for a fact,” Pearl said.

How will he do that? By just staying true to himself.

Bowman gave us a peek at what made Cooper successful in every level he’s been to, which will translate well in the NBA.

“I’ve been watching him since the seventh grade. You see young kids that make mistakes and just shrug it off but he’s somebody who was obsessed with not turning it over, obsessed with making the right plays. I’ve seen him do things that didn’t work and come back and make adjustments. He does it on the fly. You rarely see him make the same mistakes twice. Those are things you can’t teach. That’s the basketball junkie that he is. He’s obsessed with being great. That’s what’s gonna happen,” Bowman said.

During his one-and-done season at Auburn, Bowman and Cooper were almost inseparable.

“He’s somebody that made me stay in shape with the amount of time that he was in the gym,” Bowman said in jest. “It’s just like having another whole job. Being able to make sure he’s getting satisfied with his basketball skill work. It was refreshing in the sense that it’s a throwback. He’s not somebody that sits around and hopes things happen. He’s gonna figure out what to do and how to make it happen.”

Cooper starts his day with what he called a ‘Breakfast Club’ at 6’o clock in the morning with basketball on his plate. After an early morning shootaround, he eats his real breakfast and attends his class. After lunch, he hits the weight room before going to practice. Then after practice, he does extra shooting before retreating to the film room. After dinner, he comes back for more extra work until 11 at night.

“He’s a gym rat,” Bowman said. “Night, morning, he’s always in the gym. He’ll do everything that we, coaches, asked our players to do and he’s gonna do more. He’s not gonna get outworked. The first guy in the gym, the cliché, last to leave but he’s also coming back. His work ethic is unparalleled. His mindset was already a pro.”

Any team in the NBA would love to have that type of player. He blew away a lot of teams during his Pro Day workout.

Auburn’s Sharife Cooper is touted to be the next elite point guard to make the NBA jump. (Getty Images/Walt Beazley/Arkansas Athletics/USA Today Sports)

Young went No. 5 in his class, Paul went No. 4. So his coaches believe that Cooper, who had done stuff that Young did in high school and college and has the court smarts of Paul that elevates his teammates, is lottery-bound.

Overall, 10 of 12 the teams in the lottery have either met or scheduled to meet with Cooper: Houston Rockets (No. 2, 23, 24) Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 3), Toronto Raptors (No. 4), Orlando Magic (No. 5, 8), Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 6, 16, 18), Golden State Warriors (No. 7, 14), Sacramento Kings (No. 9), New Orleans Pelicans (No. 10), Charlotte Hornets (No. 11) and Indiana Pacers (No.13).

The other teams from the outside (of the lottery) looking in who are confirmed to have either met Cooper or worked him out are the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Hawks.

According to a source, that list is expected to grow to 25 teams before the NBA Draft on July 29.

“Everything (mock draft) I read has him going to New York. I think that’d be a great fit. They need a point guard. I think he’d be great in that city. That city would embrace him,” Thompson weighed in.

“He’s spent a lot of times in New Jersey. That’s where his family is originally from. He knows [the Knicks] really well. I think his mind — his psyche – that’s one of the strongest suits he has. I think he’ll just be fine there. He’s an entertainer and he will be a perfect fit in New York,” he added.

Curiously, the Knicks haven’t met Cooper yet. However, ESPN’s Draft Analyst Jonathan Givony noted on ESPN’s latest NBA Mock Draft after the Combine that “the Knicks’ front-office brass and head coach Tom Thibodeau were front and center in Chicago for Cooper’s pro day, where he had a strong showing.”

Pearl also highlighted Cooper’s New Jersey roots.

“Here’s the thing, he identifies with New Jersey. That’s where he’s born. That’s where his dad played ball. Even if he played high school ball in Atlanta, he knows his roots. He knows where he’s from. He’s just a loyal kid that is grateful for the opportunity,” he said.

But both the New York teams are outside the lottery. According to a source, the Knicks have a level of interest after doing their due diligence on Cooper. With Cooper already on the radar of eight lottery teams, both the Knicks and the Nets might have to trade up if they really want the star point guard out of Auburn.

Bowman believes Cooper is the best pure point guard of this class, and he’s a plug-and-play guy right away, noting the impact of Trae Young and Chris Paul in this NBA playoffs.

“At this point, you don’t know who has the most interest. Everybody is doing their due diligence. I will just say that there’s a group of teams that needs a point guard,” Bowman said. “That they would be more successful if they have a guy like Sharife and I’m not saying who I like or who I don’t like. But I’m gonna say, whoever gets him will be lucky.”

“But you look at the Knicks and what Trae Young did to them, and the Sixers on what Trae Young did to them, and you look at the Lakers on what Chris Paul did to them. So you talk about the Lakers, Clippers, the Rockets who are rebuilding who don’t have a point guard. There are tons of teams who can plug him in and help immediately. But obviously, being from the Northeast, we talk about, you see the Knicks and the Sixers how they played.”

“Any team that sees the value in a true leader and a guy who’s gonna make people around him better, I think anybody would be lucky to have him. But I like Golden State. I don’t think Steph Curry is a point guard in a grand sense of things because he’s coming off so many screens and can do a lot with the ball if he had somebody who can set him and Klay Thompson up coming off the screen. I just see [Sharife] getting successful at about every stop,” he explained.

Pearl views Cooper in the same mold as the top point guards in today’s NBA. And he hopes whichever team that picks his former star player will trust him the way he did, akin to how Monty Williams trusts Paul that propelled the Suns two wins away from an NBA championship.

“Obviously, [Sharife should go to] a team that truly wants a point guard. In this day of positionless basketball, sometimes coaches have different people bringing up the ball on the floor. It’s got to be a coach who wants to put the ball in Sharife Cooper’s hands and let him run the team,” Pearl said.

“Lead point guards are not for every system, not for every coach. And I think that’s where the question – does Chris Paul, Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, their ability to run a team and break people down and get everybody involved interests you? – if that’s a fit for that head coach, then great. But if he’s a coach who doesn’t care who leads the break and brings the ball up the floor, then Sharife wouldn’t be attractive to them. I couldn’t do anything more productive offensively than putting the ball on the hands of Sharife. Give him space, and let him make plays.”

His coaches can’t wait to watch Cooper’s next big game, this time in the NBA, to let his next coach and the fans see for themselves what they saw in him throughout these years.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Mac McClung secures workout with Knicks, leads 40 prospects in NBA G League Elite Camp

Texas Tech’s star guard Mac McClung is scheduled to have a workout with the New York Knicks on Tuesday, a source privy to the situation confirmed to Empire Sports Media.

The story was first reported by Jake Weingarten, the founder of basketball recruiting website Stockrisers.

McClung, who signed with Daniel Poneman of Beyond Athlete Management as his agent, is also expected to be the biggest draw in the NBA G-League Elite Camp in Chicago later this month.

The Knicks own four picks in the upcoming Draft — two in the first round (Nos. 19, 21) and two in the second round (Nos. 32, 58).

McClung has been preparing for the Draft in Philadelphia with noted NBA trainer Drew Hanlen, who also trains Knicks’ rising wingman RJ Barrett.

The 6-foot-3 McClung is coming off a strong junior season with Texas Tech, in which he averaged 15.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists with a 42/34/79 shooting split to earn the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and a spot in the All-Big 12 Second Team. He helped the Red Raiders reach the NCAA Tournament before falling to Arkansas in the Round of 32.

Prior to his Texas Tech stint, he played under Knicks legend Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, where he was named to the Big East All-Freshman Team. He averaged 13.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.0 assists and registered a season-high 38 points as a freshman for the Hoyas.

Known for his bouncy plays and rim-rattling dunks, McClung is an underrated shooter who has steadily improved his 3-ball throughout his three years in college. He started as a 27.7 percent three-point shooter as a freshman, then jumped to 32.3% in his sophomore year and 34.3% at Texas Tech.

McClung earned online celebrity status in high school with his highlight dunks and explosive scoring, eclipsing Allen Iverson’s single-season scoring record in Virginia High School League. Over the years, he has amassed more than 731,000 followers on Instagram.

McClung leads 40 draft prospects who will see action in the NBA G-League Elite Camp on June 19-21 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. Snubbed by major NBA outlets’ Mock Drafts, McClung is determined to use the camp to raise his stocks in front of NBA and NBA G League scouts, coaches, and front-office executives.

All 40 prospects will be playing in five-on-five games and participating in strength and agility drills throughout the three-day event.

Other notable names in the NBA G League Elite Camp are Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen, Jr., the son of NBA Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen, Georgia Tech’s Jose Alvarado, and Shawnee State’s EJ Onu, who shares the same agent with McClung.

Sports Illustrated included Onu, a 6-foot-11 center with a 7’3 wingspan that shot 40 percent of his 3s as a senior, and the undersized Alvarado, in its list of the biggest NBA Draft sleepers.

The top performers will be invited to the NBA Draft Combine scheduled on June 21-27 at Wintrust Arena and the Marriott Marquis in Chicago. In 2019, 11 prospects were invited to the Draft Combine from the G League Elite Camp.

Here is the full list of prospects invited to the NBA G-League Elite Camp:

NBA Draft-Eligible Players (College/Club)
Alston Jr., Derrick (Boise State) Koprivica, Balsa (Florida State)
Aluma, Keve (Virginia Tech) Lawson, A.J. (South Carolina)
Alvarado, Jose (Georgia Tech) Liddell, E.J. (Ohio State)
Begarin, Juhann (Paris, France) McClung, Mac (Texas Tech)
Brown, Chaundee (Michigan) McLaughlin, JaQuori (UCSB)
Burns, Jordan (Colgate) Mitchell, Matt (San Diego State)
Carr, Marcus (Minnesota) Nembhard, RJ (TCU)
Carton, DJ (Marquette) Omoruyi, Eugene (Oregon)
Cisse, Moussa (Memphis) Onu, E.J. (Shawnee State)
Cockburn, Kofi (Illinois) Pippen Jr., Scotty (Vanderbilt)
da Silva, Oscar (Stanford) Robinson Jr., Orlando (Fresno State)
Days, Darius (LSU) Simms, Aamir (Clemson)
Dickinson, Hunter (Michigan) Smart, Javonte (LSU)
Garcia, Dawson (Marquette) Smith, Mike (Michigan)
Garrett, Marcus (Kansas) Stewart Jr., D.J. (Mississippi State)
Guo, Haowen (Shanghai, China) Teague, MaCio (Baylor)
Huff, Jay (Virginia) Walker, M.J. (Florida State)
Jarreau, DeJon (Houston) Washington Jr., Duane (Ohio State)
Jones, Carlik (Louisville) Wiggins, Aaron (Maryland)
Jones, DeVante (Coastal Carolina) Wilson, Jalen (Kansas)

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo