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Shaedon Sharpe Is Figuring It Out

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 26: Shaedon Sharpe #17 of the Portland Trail Blazers looks on during the game against the Miami Heat on October 26, 2022 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Early in the fourth quarter against the Hornets on Wednesday night, Blazers rookie Shaedon Sharpe curled around a Nassir Little screen, nimbly cut to the hoop away from Theo Maledon, then leapt to kick it out to the perimeter after getting a step on Jalen McDaniels. Around two-thirds of the way through that aerial journey, Sharpe, who was not looking at the basket, seemed to realize Oh huh, I guess I’m at the rim? and easily laid it in. It’s not a particularly flashy play, though there are two things to take away from it. The first is that Sharpe read the defense perfectly and intuitively cut through the space; the second, and more important, is that he got to the rim on accident.

The Blazers endured a (largely self-inflicted) season from hell in 2021-22, a season that culminated in an all-time tank job, a 2-21 nosedive after the All-Star break, and, as their reward for being that bad, the seventh overall pick in the 2022 draft. Despite that, or perhaps because, the team is still built around the aging and moderately hobbled Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ braintrust made the biggest gamble of the lottery by selecting Shaedon Sharpe seventh overall. Sharpe went to Kentucky for a year, though he didn’t play a single minute, and entered the draft with some of the most impressive and least battle-tested measurables you will ever see in a lottery prospect. Yes, he is 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan and he glides through space like someone who has figured out how to cheat gravity, and yes, his shooting form is smooth and confident. But also, he achieved his pedigree almost exclusively from showing out over 12 games of one offseason tournament in high school. That is a high degree of uncertainty for the pick on which your franchise is about to stake the end of Damian Lillard’s prime, but the Blazers made the bet all the same.

Through 11 games, that gamble has looked like a smart one. Sharpe is playing 21 minutes a game for Portland, hitting 44 percent of his threes, and contributing in increasingly impressive ways to one of the happiest surprises of the NBA season. The team playing the best basketball in the Pacific time zone is not the one with LeBron James, and not the supposedly deepest squad in the NBA, and not the defending champions, and certainly not the other one. While many of the Western Conference’s elite and would-be elite are slowly lurching into a rhythm, the Blazers are kicking everyone’s ass while playing some extremely entertaining hoops. They are 8-3, and have only lost once with Damian Lillard in the lineup.

They’ve racked up that record against a hard schedule, and established the league’s ninth-best defense while playing an impressively young rotation. The Blazers had the ninth-oldest roster in the league a season ago, and now have the seventh-youngest. They were a popular pick to finish tenth in the west, or even fall below the Sacramento Kings, because they chose to make this pivot towards youth. And while the team still relies heavily on Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, and Jerami Grant to produce, they have trusted a bunch of cool young wings (Sharpe, Nassir Little, Keon Johnson, and I guess Justise Winslow, though that’s more of a reclamation) to fly around do stuff while Lillard and Anfernee Simons cook with the ball. At some point, they will also get Gary Payton II back from injury, and his whole thing is flying around and doing stuff at an even higher level. It is fun to see this trust in young players validated, but also it is just fun to see these young players.

None of those players requires more trust, or more faith, than Sharpe, who won’t even turn 20 until the 2023 offseason. In Sharpe’s first career game, in Sacramento, he looked hilariously raw, fumbling his way through screens and cutting into the same space as a teammate; he also hit all three of his threes and clearly stood out as the most athletic player on the court. He did not yet know where to stand, at all, and the horizons of the Blazers ambitions (and, for that matter, Sharpe’s talent) weren’t yet clear enough to guess whether he would continue to get the opportunity to learn where to stand during actual game action. We now have the answers, which is that Sharpe is learning where to stand at an alarming rate. He had 17 points on 10 shots last night, all of which came within the flow of the offense. The contrast to his debut in Sacramento was shocking. His big highlight reel dunk was also not supposed to be an alley-oop, but he’s athletic enough that he turned it into one. Sharpe even has a fan in Vince Carter, which rules.

The Carter comp is obvious, if obviously premature to the point of being unfair. Blazers coach Chauncey Billups offered a far more intriguing one. “It’s crazy that I say this, but I honestly think he reminds me some of Brandon Roy, to be honest with you,” Billups said last week. “By way of how smooth he is and Brandon was a lot more athletic than he got credit for. (Sharpe) gets to his spots. You really don’t speed him up.” The only part of his game that remains more or less non-functional is his passing, which tends to take a while for young wings anyway. He’s lucky enough to play for a team that shares the rock—Damian Lillard is out here feeding Anfernee Simons game-winners—and a team that really seems to enjoy playing with each other. All in all, it’s a pretty promising start.