Canadians in the NBA Roundup: Blazers’ bet on Sharpe looking good

London, Ont. is not exactly a hoops hotbed. When it comes to sports, the city of 500,000 people 200-km west of Toronto is best known for football, where the high school scene is as competitive as some cities in Texas or Florida and the Western Mustangs are the cream of the crop of Canadians collegiate football, and hockey, where the Knights are perennial OHL title contenders.

But as Canada changes and basketball begins to see its way into every crevice of the country, it was only a matter of time before someone out of London made it to the NBA. Enter Shaedon Sharpe.

The 19-year-old London native spent his childhood playing football until entering high school, when he broke his right tibia. Sharpe then chose to focus on basketball instead, driving back and forth between Toronto and London on Hwy. 401 for hoops. All the hard work and travel paid off in the 2022 NBA Draft, when Sharpe was selected seventh overall by the Portland Trail Blazers despite not playing a single game of college basketball in his lone season at the University of Kentucky.

In fact, Sharpe was nicknamed the “mystery man” of the NBA Draft. He went from being the unranked prospect with one season as a starter at Dream City Christian high school in Glendale, Ariz. to the No. 1 high school player in his class after one glorious summer in the highly competitive Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) circuit, averaging 22.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists over 12 games with the Uplay AAU club based out of Hamilton .

Given that his track record of success was extremely limited — and that there was relatively little data on him in the first place after he redshirted his lone season at Kentucky — Portland took a big swing on Sharpe in the draft. Fortunately for everybody involved, the bet has paid off.

“Shae is uber talented, obviously,” Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups said in Toronto last Sunday. “It’s been a delight just coaching him. He listens, picks up things pretty quickly. He’s been playing really well. And obviously for a young guy like that — it’s always going to be up and down, especially because he hasn’t played actual basketball [games] in a while… But he’s done a good job, man. He works his butt off. He is starting to understand the cadence of the NBA. And he has been playing well on both ends.”

“… I think we got a pretty good plan in place for him. And obviously, he’s just a beautiful kid. So we are all excited to have him.”

Sharpe is averaging 7.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 19.4 minutes per game while playing in a team-high 40 games this season. He is shooting 53.6 per cent from two and 35.8 per cent from three on 2.4 attempts per game. Meanwhile, the Blazers are a feisty 19-22, and with 32-year-old Damian Lillard leading the charge, they are competing to win this season.

That gives Sharpe the rare opportunity to join a veteran-heavy team with a winning culture, including veterans like Lillard, Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow, and Jusuf Nurkic.

“It’s been solid, just finding my way. Coming into the league, just trying to learn as much as possible. Just soaking in all the info and everything,” Sharpe said inside the halls of Scotiabank Arena. “Mostly all the older dudes, the vets… all of them really take me under their wings and help me with everything — with what I’m supposed to expect and everything.”

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I know how, so good. The reports out of Portland regarding Sharpe have been overwhelmingly positive according to Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who might one day coach him for Canada’s senior team — something Sharpe says “I’ll probably do” down the road once he is more adjusted to the NBA . And the on-court product has been just as encouraging, with Sharpe looking comfortable playing a pivotal role for a competitive team despite being the fifth-youngest player in the league.

Sharpe is a six-foot-six wing with a nearly seven-foot wingspan, but he handles the ball like a guard, weaving his way around the court with a swagger that most wing-sized rookies simply don’t have. The release on his jump shot is pretty, with a pronounced flick of the wrist that comes at the very peak of his release point, which is higher than most due to his natural leaping ability. In fact, an unofficial pre-draft video shows Sharpe reaching a max vertical of 49 inches off the ground, which would have broken the NBA combine record of 48 inches set by Michael Jordan. That also helps when it comes to his dunking of him, which is always near the front of Sharpe’s mind.

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“I have been very surprised with him and his development so far,” Billups said about Sharpe. “And there’s some games that he looks like he’s a six- or seven-year vet. And there’s some games where he looks like he’s [19] years old. But his skill level is unmatched, it really is. I mean, the athlete that he is.

“People just talk about his dunking and things like that but it’s just special with his footwork, his ball-handling, he shoots it very easy. There is just a gracefulness about him that he is blessed with that most guys don’t have. But he doesn’t just rest on that. He’s putting the work in, which is good to see for a young guy.”

It’s that work that can take Sharpe from an uber-talented 19 year old to a legitimate NBA star. But circumstance can be very important too, and Sharpe is lucky to be in a situation where the team that drafted him has a role for him and is trying to win right away, with a foundational star in Lillard, who is as good of a leader as you’ll find.

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“I feel like I can really learn from these guys and see how they lead the team and everything,” Sharpe said. “And I feel like I could really be that leader later on throughout my career.”

But putting in all of that work deserves some rewards. So when Sharpe was invited to participate in the NBA Dunk Contest during the All-Star break in Utah this February, he leapt at the opportunity. “I’m looking forward to it a lot,” Sharpe said. “I feel like it’s a great opportunity to show everybody what I can do in the dunk contest.”

When asked about the possibility of honoring Vince Carter, who helped put the Raptors and Canadian basketball on the map with his iconic performance in the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest, Sharpe refused to show his hand.

“I mean, I might,” Sharpe said. “I don’t even really know yet, for real,” he added with a smirk.

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