May 24, 2023

Could the Bucks Jump

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How a draft cast-off might fit in Milwaukee

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As the NBA launches into full offseason mode now that the Las Vegas Summer League is over, the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office and new coaching staff face the task of filling out the team’s roster for training camp and ultimately for the 2023-2024 season. Though there are some new additions to the bench, the Bucks managed to retain Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton, ensuring continuity among the roster’s core. One candidate worth considering to complement that core—whether it’s just for training camp or for the third two-way contract each team is now allowed under the new CBA—is Sharife Cooper.

Selected no. 48 in the 2021 NBA draft—before former Bucks luminaries Sandro Mamukelashvili (no. 54) and Georgios Kalaitzakis (no. 60)—Sharife Cooper never caught on with the Atlanta Hawks despite having a ready-made local-kid-makes-good story.

While having grown up in the outlying suburb of Powder Springs, Georgia, could have been a heartwarming beginning, the statistics from Cooper’s debut campaign were ultimately exactly what could be expected from a rookie low on the depth chart behind perennial All-Star Trae Young, three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, and veteran combo guard Delon Wright.

With a total of 39 minutes across thirteen games, Cooper’s rookie campaign stats were even meager when projected out to a per-36 minutes basis: 6.5 points on 21.4% shooting (16.7% from three), 4.6 rebounds, and a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He did, however, leave his mark in one viral moment from the Hawks’ 2021-22 season:

When he wasn’t with the main club, Cooper spent his time with the G League’s College Park Skyhawks before being waived and subsequently picked up by the Cleveland Charge, the Cavaliers’ affiliate.

Looking at Cooper through a wider lens, though, can still show glimmers of upside.

Point guards notoriously have a longer developmental timeline in the NBA than players traditionally slotted into other positions. Cooper, to his credit, shone as a floor general during his lone collegiate season, recording a nearly 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio for the Auburn Tigers. In 12 games, his two-point field goal percentage averaged out to 46.5%, or a tick over what Mamu put up in limited minutes in 24 games with the Bucks last season, for context.

While Mamu was playing in his age-23 season, Cooper is a freshly minted 22-year-old, and he just performed well enough in the early stretch of summer league that he was shut down for several games to open up minutes for other players en route to clinching the exhibition’s championship. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence for players who have played in previous summer leagues, of course, and it is worth noting that Cooper was logging minutes with several teammates he had already shared a G league roster with. Still, Cooper averaged 13.5 points, 3.3 assists, and 2.3 rebounds across four games. More interestingly, he also shot 60% from deep on limited attempts. Not primarily known as a range shooter by any means, Cooper knocked down 82.5% of his 8.6 per-game free throw attempts in college, and a solid free throw percentage has often been a reliable predictor of the ability to develop a three-point stroke at the professional level.

Case in point: Kawhi Leonard shot 74.4% from the charity stripe and a paltry 25% from behind the arc through two seasons at San Diego State. While his rookie year free throw percentage ticked up slightly, he made an enormous leap as a 37.6% three-point shooter with the San Antonio Spurs and has since become a 38.7% deep shooter for his career.

Cooper will never be mistaken for Leonard, but that particular developmental pathway could exist for him. At 6’1” and 180 pounds, with a hand size that skews much more toward average than alien, Cooper is already adept at driving toward the basket to find his shot, and it isn’t hard to imagine him tossing a pinpoint pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo for a lob like his connection with John Collins to produce a similarly jaw-dropping moment.

While he has averaged 7.3 and 6.4 assists per game across two G League seasons with the Skyhawks and the Charge, respectively, Cooper’s scoring prowess is the most prominent part of his game against competition in the developmental league. In 2022-23, he put up 21.3 points per game, eclipsing the 17.1 average he logged during his rookie campaign. Each year saw him shoot at least 31% from three-point territory, as well, showing marked improvement from his lone season at Auburn. A 27 point (2-4 from three) outing against the Brooklyn Nets may be the most relevant proof-of-concept that Cooper could provide scoring punch off the bench and secondary playmaking alongside any of Antetokounmpo, Middleton or Jrue Holiday in the event that he excels through training camp and makes it onto the Bucks’ final roster for any portion of the regular season.

As with many players who thrive on the fringes of the NBA and its associated leagues, Cooper’s capabilities on offense may be appealing to big league clubs, but his defense may leave something to be desired. In this sense, he might be the opposite of Jevon Carter, an undersized guard whose #treadmillmentality and collegiate career under full-court press enthusiast Bob Huggins allowed him to turn his tenacity against opposing offenses into a contract with the Chicago Bulls worth nearly $20 million when he left Milwaukee in free agency earlier in June.

While Carter is also taking his sometimes-frustrating proclivity for uncorking transition threes with him, swapping in Cooper would insert a more traditional point guard into the reserve corps. Much like Holiday, Carter was a passable facilitator, but Cooper’s court vision eclipses that of both vets, so much so that SB Nation’s own Ricky O’Donnell dubbed him “the 2021 NBA Draft’s Point God in training” just two summers ago.

It has been years since the Bucks last rostered a player who was a point guard by nature rather than by default fit next to his teammates. General manager Jon Horst recently went on record saying the franchise is “at peace” with the roster as currently constructed, though he did not rule out adding a true point guard or making any other on-court personnel moves before the season kicks off.

Currently, the secondary ball-handlers who would see primary duties as Bucks back-ups include two-way players Lindell Wigginton and Omari Moore. The Mountain West Player of the Year as a senior at San Jose State, Moore certainly has appealing measurables standing at 6’6” and 190 pounds with a nearly 6’10” wingspan. Horst has called him the Bucks’ “secret,” but also seemed to compare him to Grayson Allen and newcomer Malik Beasley as more of a combo guard. Wigginton, for his part, is more of a known quantity after playing solidly and scoring consistently on a high usage rate for the Bucks’ G League affiliate Wisconsin Herd since 2021–22, with occasional stints suiting up for the main team.

Jazian Gortman’s Exhibit 10 deal ensures he’ll get some reps initiating the offense during training camp, and new draftee Andre Jackson Jr. provides intrigue as a facilitator, having handled distribution duties as co-captain of the UConn Huskies’ 2023 national championship team. However, he slots in more as an athletic, defense-first wing player at the professional level.

The good news as it relates to Cooper is that Jackson is by no means a marksman. Over three seasons at UConn, he shot 42.8% from the field and 29.3% from three before going 33% overall and 20% from three with the Bucks’ summer league squad. Drafting Jackson shows a new willingness by Milwaukee’s front office to add players perceived as non-shooters to the roster around Antetokounmpo, and if he hasn’t yet shed that tag in the eyes of NBA GMs, Cooper’s spotty record from behind the arc could be generously viewed as something of a non-issue through the prism of Jackson as the Bucks’ top selection in the 2023 NBA draft at no. 36 overall.

Horst & Co’s history of bringing in players past their prime (see: Goran Dragic) leaves open the possibility of some point guard weirdness, however. Rajon Rondo and his savant-level vision didn’t play last season, but the journeyman is technically not retired. Antetokounmpo’s agent Alex Saratsis has Tomáš Satoranský on his friends-and-family-of-Giannis client list. Facundo Campazzo played just 130 games with the Denver Nuggets before being jettisoned prior to their sprint to the 2023 NBA title; he returned to Europe after logging eight games with the Dallas Mavericks in 2022–23, and his last game stateside was a November loss against the Bucks in Milwaukee in which he recorded less than four minutes of playing time. Still, Campazzo’s stated goal is to make it back to the NBA, and there’s no denying that the Bucks could utilize a playmaker of his caliber.

While contract clauses and buyouts make the latter two longshots, and Rondo’s mercurial nature may clash with a good vibes team that features two sets of lighthearted brothers, Cooper is still young enough—and likely hungry enough—that he could be folded into an existing team without much friction on the personality front.

Cooper has shared a locker room in Cleveland with former Bucks Mamadi Diakite and Sam Merrill, so it is entirely plausible that he could have heard about Milwaukee’s culture and understood the organizational dynamics from their perspectives. At the very least, it would be easy for him to tap them for information if he has not already done so.

Cooper does share an agent with Cavaliers wing Isaac Okoro. The two spent several years as AAU teammates and played three seasons of high school basketball together. This familiarity may make Cleveland a comfortable place, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that Okoro has done or could do some lobbying for Cooper to be elevated to the main roster, but his command is not exactly the kind that can create a Giannis-Thanasis situation.

Cooper may wind up consistently being a stat leader in the G League but never quite being scouted as a player who can succeed in a role with a major club. But a player who was written off so quickly may be well-positioned for a reclamation story if given a well-defined role under proper leadership. That’s where the Bucks could be an inflection point in Cooper’s narrative, by way of a two-way contract, a standard roster spot, or some other Horst-ian machination to be announced.