Nearly a year ago to the day, Sharife Cooper demanded the attention of a densely-packed gym.
Hundreds made up a sold-out crowd at The Patrick (N.J.) School as the McEachern High School (Ga.) senior made a return to his home state Jan. 17, 2020 in a battle of prep powerhouses. The Patrick School had one of the flashier point guards in the area in East Carolina commit Noah Farrakhan. But make no mistake: the big crowd — which even included rapper Lil Uzi Vert — was there for the five-star guard and Auburn commit Cooper.
Cooper had the swagger, the confidence, the shifty handle and the basketball IQ beyond his years. They’re all reasons why Cooper garnered capacity crowds as a blue-chip recruit. The type of talent he possesses is uncommon and it’s why Auburn fought so hard to make sure Cooper — the highest-ranked recruit in program history — would be eligible to play this year.
It’s also why Auburn has made a 180-degree turnaround since his arrival.
Before Cooper’s collegiate debut against Alabama on Jan. 9, Auburn was 0-3 in Southeastern Conference play. His 26 points and nine assists that day instantly revitalized the Tigers’ offense and had them within two possessions of beating the current leader in the SEC.
Cooper and Auburn next host Missouri at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2. Even though Illinois combo guard Ayo Dosunmu lit up Missouri for 36 points last month, Cooper’s skillset is one Missouri has yet to see.
In five games this season, Cooper is averaging 21.4 points nine assists and 4.4 rebounds. The Tigers are 3-2 when he plays, with one loss coming in his debut and the other by two to a strong Arkansas team.
The freshman has posted two double-doubles, including one by halftime (10 points, 11 assists) in a 109-86 demolition at South Carolina on Saturday. Cooper is a wizard with the ball, with CBS’ Jon Rothstein calling him “the most creative point guard college basketball has seen since Kyrie Irving.”
“I think I’m a little bit of Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving,” Cooper said in an interview with Ballislife. “I could finish similar to Kyrie Irving and I could pass like Chris Paul.”
The 6-foot-1 guard isn’t exaggerating. With a frame similar to both stars, Cooper has showcased an eerily similar concoction of both players.
Like Irving, Cooper is a volume shooter, being used in 36.9% of Auburn’s possessions the past five games. He has the guts to shoot the big shot and will find his spots throughout a game. He also puts a ton of value in the 3-pointer — though at 20% from deep, he must improve — while still being a slick finisher at the rim.
If someone’s open, Cooper will find them. He finds teammates above the rim, whips pocket passes perfectly and is dynamic in the pick-and-roll. Like Paul, he can make others around him better.
Cooper is as dangerous a point guard as they come and has the potential to put on a show. In his way will be a Missouri defense that has flustered teams time and time again this season.
Missouri guard Dru Smith in particular is coming off one of his best weeks of the season. The redshirt senior was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 17 points, four rebounds and 2.5 assists in the Tigers’ two wins against South Carolina and then-No. 6 Tennessee. Foul trouble has kept Smith from being as disruptive a defender as fans and coach Cuonzo Martin may want , but the 6-3 guard still emphasizes aggressive on-ball defense.
Smith made scoring opportunities tougher on Dosunmu when the two matched up in December. He’s Martin’s go-to when it comes to locking down a guard or a wing, and at the very least will contain a player better than anyone in the program.
If anyone will be entrusted with containing Cooper, it’ll likely be Smith. The Evansville transfer was tasked with containing the Gamecocks’ A.J. Lawson and the Volunteers’ Keon Johnson last week. Lawson shot 2-for-9, while Johnson only hoisted five shots.
Cooper has already been game-planned by two of the top-20 defenses in the country in Kentucky and Alabama. The Wildcats contained him better than anyone, forcing Cooper into a season-low 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting. Much of that success was due to their ability to effectively switch on defense, something Missouri did to force 18 Tennessee turnovers Saturday.
Guard Xavier Pinson displayed some defensive intensity in Missouri’s win in Knoxville, garnering a team-high three steals. Between Dru Smith, Mark Smith and Pinson, Missouri has three guards who can switch to get under Cooper’s skin.
But one thing Missouri won’t have to change ahead of Tuesday is its ability to defend the perimeter. Missouri holds teams to one of the lowest 3-point percentages in the nation (28.6%), making life difficult for teams from deep. As long as Missouri plays its game, it can do as good of a job as anybody at containing Cooper.