SLAM x Panini Rookie Spotlight: Hawks’ Sharife Cooper

“I understand the main goal and I feel like me taking the sacrifices and these steps right now… it’ll pay off in the end.”

That was Sharife Cooper, way back in the summer of 2019, at the photo shoot for his first ever SLAM cover (SLAM 225, with Josh Christopher and Jalen Green). Those sacrifices he referenced? Well, at the time, it wasn’t unusual for him and his dad, Omar, to pull up to the Life Time gym in Atlanta at 1:00 am for a workout, following a day packed with weightlifting, pick-up games and more.

It’s been nearly three years since that shoot, and all of those sacrifices have definitely paid off. Cooper was a McDonald’s All-American and consensus five-star prospect at McEachern High School (Georgia), becoming the highest-ranked recruit ever to commit to Auburn. He appeared in just 12 games for the Tigers due to eligibility issues, but averaged 20.2 points, 8.1 assists. 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 steals. When he declared for the 2021 Draft, he became just the second one-and-done in program history.

At merely 6-1, Cooper lacks the size that many of the 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 match up 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 look at the way that he plays the game with his [mind]—that’s probably the most similar to what I was able to do. But in terms of skill, I wish I had a tenth of the skill that he’s able to 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,” Christopher—now on the Houston Rockets—added. “I’ve guarded Sharife a couple of times and he’s got me. It’s crazy what he does with the basketball.”

Really crazy. Sharife has elite handles and an array of creative moves that he uses to navigate to the paint. Once there, he calmly surveys his options, either finding his own shot or finding a shot for someone else. He changes speeds and directions effortlessly, somehow remaining in complete control the whole time. Like any true floor general, he comes off screens, reads the defense and figures out the best way to attack, whether it’s by scoring or facilitating.

The Hawks took Cooper with the 48th pick in the draft and immediately signed him to a two-way contract. With their depth, especially in the backcourt, it became clear that the 20-year-old wasn’t going to get much of an opportunity this season. He spent most of the past several 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 a major reason the Skyhawks earned a spot in the G League playoffs, ending the regular season on a remarkable 11-game winning streak. 

Amid that stretch, Cooper appeared in 10 contests and averaged 18 points and 7.3 assists, shooting 46 percent from the field. He had 24 and 7 against the Wisconsin Herd; 18 and 10 against the Maine Celtics; 42 (on a staggering 14/19 from the field and 7/9 from three), 5 assists, 4 steals and the game-winner against the Lakeland Magic; 20 and 8 against the Grand Rapids Gold. Though the Skyhawks went on to lose to Capitol City in the first round of the playoffs (which are single elimination until the Finals), Cooper had another spectacular night, notching 19 points and 13 assists (with 0 turnovers).

His 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 that he needs to right now. And it will pay off in the end. 

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