By Wil Crews
Sharife Cooper made his debut for Auburn against Alabama on Jan. 9, and he did not disappoint.
The former five-star recruit looked rusty in the early stages of the game but was electric in the second half before missing a potential game-tying three in the final minute to give Alabama the 94-90 win in Auburn Arena.
“The first couple minutes, I knew I was going to be a little rusty,” Cooper said. “I haven’t played in a long time, so I didn’t want to force anything. I knew once I settled down, things would get to flowing. The offense would look better.”
After sitting out the first 11 games of the season and missing over two months of practice, Cooper slowly found his rhythm and finished with a game-high 26 points and a team-high nine assists in his college debut. Despite losing the game, the arrival of Cooper was exactly the remedy that the youthful Tigers needed.
Coming into the season, Auburn had just two scholarship point guards on the roster. Tyrell “Turbo” Jones quickly fell out of Bruce Pearl’s favor and announced his intentions to transfer to South Alabama, and Cooper was out due to an NCAA investigation.
Without those two, freshman playmaker-turned-point-guard Justin Powell has handled the bulk of the playmaking duties – with Allen Flanigan chipping in out of necessity. Powell has the vision to make any pass along with all the moves to get his own bucket. Similarly, Flanigan can get his shot at almost any time and is a decent – but unrefined – playmaker. The two have performed admirably; but they are in no way natural point guards. By that virtue, the Tigers have struggled initiating offense in half-court sets and lacked the composure needed to secure quality shots at the end of close games. Cooper immediately addressed those issues.
With Powell out against the Tide, the spotlight was wholly on Cooper. The cult following that he’s built almost exclusively through YouTube highlights eagerly anticipated his debut with skyscraper-sized expectations.
Again… He. Did. Not. Disappoint.
Bringing along his own game slowly, Cooper’s impact was more quickly felt by the other Tigers who were on the floor. Guys like Devan Cambridge, Jamal Johnson and JT Thor must have thought they were playing an early-season cupcake with the open looks they were getting. In actuality, Auburn was playing the undefeated-in-the-SEC (3-0 at the time) Crimson Tide.
Still, all three of the aforementioned Tigers shot well above their season averages thanks in large part to Cooper penetrating the lane, drawing in multiple defenders and picking out the correct pass. The alley-oop lobs that Cooper threw, and the subsequent “yams” that Thor and Cambridge threw down, were straight out of the NBA Jam video game.
As the second half went along, Cooper became comfortable scoring the ball. He led Auburn’s comeback charge by getting in the lane – either scoring or getting fouled – and with tenacious defense that earned him three steals, tied for a team-best.
His confidence off the dribble was second to none and his decision making was prophetic. That was until the last couple minutes, when he had back-to-back turnovers and airmailed a three as Auburn’s last meaningful shot of the game. Chalk that one up to inexperience. As the Tigers continue to gel and more clearly define their roles, confidence will grow and they will improve in those late game situations.
What Cooper contributes to that process cannot be understated. Every single player will get more open shots. Cooper will force defensive switches with his clever ball handling, allowing the versatile Thor and Powell to exploit any mismatches and operate more freely in the offense with less defensive attention shrouding their movements. Flanigan can play within himself and stop pulling up from the logo. He could be Auburn’s best all-around player as a defensive stalwart, offensive slasher, rebounder and playmaker. Then, and only then, can we live with the occasional logo pull up. The bigs, Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell, should benefit from Cooper’s precise pick-and-roll game and feast on second chance opportunities when Cooper draws multiple defenders for a shot contest.
All of this is already coming to fruition after just one game. The insurgence of Cooper looks to have unlocked a dynamic and potential for Auburn that was becoming more and more inconceivable with each passing game: The Tigers can be exceptional this year. Postseason or no postseason. Cooper has been let out of the NCAA’s cage and is coming for the SEC – step-back threes, mouthwatering passes and highlight dunks aplenty.
“You could tell how hard Sharife has worked to stay right and stay ready and what a dynamic player he is,” Pearl said. “We obviously have been working to try and build the program around him the last couple years knowing he would be coming in. It’s great to have him back.”