Monday, December 18, 2023

Is Reed Sheppard an NBA first-rounder?

The Reed Sheppard bandwagon has certainly filled up since Kentucky’s season started to the point where the UK freshman is now being projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2024 NBA Draft.

However, one national analyst who was on the Sheppard bandwagon even before UK played three games in Canada in July was Krysten Peek, a writer for YahooSports and Rivals.

She watched Sheppard play in the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Mass., in January and not only liked what she saw on the court but what she heard from him off the court.

“I was telling him he had a fantastic game (13 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and was doing what he’s doing at Kentucky now,” said Peek. “I asked him about joining the ranks of some of the nation’s best players (D.J. Wagner, Rob Dillingham, Justin Edwards) in his class in a Kentucky backcourt and how he would fit.

“I won’t forget what he told me. He said, ‘I will do whatever I am asked to do. If I need to dish out assists, hit 3-pointers, grab water during timeouts … I will do whatever as long as we win.’

“Some kids say what they think you want to hear in an interview but you could tell this  kid believes in his soul in doing what it takes to win and if that was getting water, he would get water. I knew then he was a winner and would be just fine at Kentucky. I actually thought then he could be the most impactful freshman at Kentucky this season.”

She had already seen Sheppard play in Las Vegas in July, 2022, against a team that had Dillingham and star Bronny James. Sheppard had 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists in that game against a group of five-star foes.

“Reed was so unbothered by the atmosphere. He was not scared of the attention and played the right way,” Peek said. “He stayed so composed. It made me go up to him and his dad after the game and tell them he was playing the right way and he was going to be really successful in college. He was not fazed at all and that kind of attitude is very appealing to NBA scouts.”

Peek predicted former UK guards Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley would do much better in the NBA than some expected. She doesn’t think first-round draft speculation in 2024 for Sheppard is crazy talk.

“If you are looking at the back half of the first round and very early in the second round you are talking about an established team that wants to know what they are investing in. Every game those scouts are getting a glimpse of who he is and what they would be getting,” Peek said. “The speculation about him being a first-round pick is real in a draft filled with question marks. Reed is so consistent, plays defense and makes 3-pointers.”

He is one of five players in the nation averaging at least four rebounds, three assists and three steals per game. CBS-TV analyst Bill Raftery likes how Sheppard can “read things beautifully in an extraordinary fashion.”

NBA personnel have already been doing some preliminary background checks and Peek said that is part of the “due diligence” the league does for potential first-round picks even this far in advance of the draft. 

“He is not coming from nowhere but when you are as productive as Reed has been the league is going to do its homework and find out even more about him,” Peek said. “He s one of the best players I have covered off the court and that carries over to his on-court presence. That is very appealing to NBA teams.”

Peek could see Sheppard having the same impact on a team that Payton Pritchard, an Oregon graduate in his fourth NBA season, has had with the Boston Celtics. 

“Nothing has really surprised me about Reed this year other than maybe just how productive he has been and how he has sustained that and been consistently good,” Peek said. “He’s so composed with his shot selection. He doesn’t shy away from big moments like you will sometimes see freshmen do. He takes big shots with somebody in his face. When he recognizes and needs to capitalize on shot selection, there is no hesitation and that’s impressive to NBA scouts. 

“He also is not thinking about the game. He already knows what is happening. That high IQ early in the season diminishes doubts about what he does and can do.”

Peek likes how Sheppard, who is averaging 13 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, adjusts to the talent on his team and how that impacts his role. She knows some were not impressed with his play at the McDonald’s All-American Game when he had four points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 13 minutes. Peek had a different perspective.

“I thought Reed was very productive in the time he was on the court,” she said. “He just finds ways to impact the game even when the ball is not in his hands. He doesn’t turn the ball over a lot. He finds ways to win that you cannot teach and that is very appealing to NBA scouts.”

* * *
Sophomore cornerback Maxwell Hairston admits becoming an all-SEC player was a goal he set for himself this season. He reached that goal when SEC coaches named him a second-team all-conference pick.
“I am  very excited that I did accomplish that but I can’t stop here. I have got to keep going and accomplish something bigger than this coming up,” Hairston said.
He has five interceptions -- fifth most in the nation — going into the TaxSlayer Bowl Dec. 29th in Jacksonville against Clemson. His five interceptions, including four in SEC, are the fifth most in a single season at UK and most Sam Maxwell had six in 2009. He returned two touchdowns for interceptions in a win over Vanderbilt and had 131 interception return yards.
Hairston also is third on the team in tackles with 64 and has a team-high six pass breakups and a forced fumble.
His numbers certainly would make him an attractive target for a lot of schools if he put his name into that transfer portal but he never considered that. 
“I am very happy and comfortable here. I chose to come here out of high school, so this is the place I want to be,” Hairston said. “I am glad I had a good season with  my teammates. I am happy here. I love it here.”
He’s glad coach Mark Stoops is also still at UK after being pursued by Texas A&M. 
“It all worked out in the end. At first it caught me off guard (when the rumors started),” Hairston said. “But rumors are rumors and coach Stoops let us know he was staying, so that was all that mattered.”

* * *
Former UK All-American Jack Givens takes his work as analyst on the UK Radio Network seriously and regularly attends practices to give him a complete perspective on players to share with fans during games when he’s working with Tom Leach.

One player who has impressed Givens from the start this season has been senior guard Antonio Reeves.

“Antonio is just a good dude. He is determined that this is going to be a great year for him and he’s playing that way,” Givens said. “He is not a vocal leader but is a guy younger guys look at because he works hard every day. 

“The big difference now compared to last year is that last year if he wasn’t making shots he would stay on the perimeter and shoot whether he was making shots or not. Now he puts it on the floor and doesn’t just stand out there waiting.”

Freshman Justin Edwards probably has been the most perplexing player to this point. He was projected as a top 10 NBA draft pick before the season started but has struggled on both ends of the court. 

“Justin is going to be a great player. He is going to be really, really good but sometimes players get a false understanding of what being good is,” Givens said. “He was trying to prove to everybody that being good is making 3-point shots and scoring. 
“Now he is figuring out I am not shooting a high percentage and what am I going to do to score and rebound. That means he can’t just stand around the perimeter. At 6-8, he is long. He has to take advantage of all his assets, knock down a 3 every now and then if he is open but don’t just stand and wait. He will get there but it is going to take him some time.”
* * *
Running back Ray Davis had a record-setting season for Kentucky with 20 touchdowns and 120 points — he also led the Southeastern Conference in scoring — but the Vanderbilt transfer also managed to complete a second degree.
He graduated from Vanderbilt in 2022 with a degree in communications studies. Now he has completed an undergraduate certificate in business at Kentucky.
“Being a student-athlete is difficult for anybody,” said Davis. “You have practice and meetings but there are times you have to study two or three hours after practice or maybe cram in a quiz on a bus ride coming back from a game.
“I know sports will not last forever. Then it comes back to the degree you have. That is real life. When you get into the real world and it is time to work a big boy job that is when you fall back on your degree and work you did in college. 
“It’s called student-athlete, not athlete-student. You just have to keep reminding yourself of that.”
Davis has also enjoyed certain NIL benefits but made sure to include his offensive linemen in some of his perks
Davis found time to be involved in several community projects. He shared his experience at a Frankfort middle school where he tried to provide motivation and advice on life.
“Not everything is easy but I told them do not let anyone take away your dreams of what you can do,” he said.
He’s worked with the humane society and him and other players have been part of charity food drives.
“A lot of guys know they want to be part of this community and want to help out however they can,” Davis said. “When you are a football player there is usually an overall perception of how people view you but you always want them to know you gave your all not only on the field but also off the field.”
* * *
Cutter Boley is the state’s highest ranked high school football recruit and recently won the Paul Hornung Award given by the Louisville Quarterback Club to the state’s top player.

The Lexington Christian quarterback planned to sign with Kentucky this week and will enroll at UK in January. However, he recently did something few high school players have the opportunity to do — he made a $5,000 contribution to charity.

Boley used NIL money to donate $5,000 to Sunrise Children’s Services in Danville.

“It has been a blessing to have the opportunities I have through NIL to make some money at my age,” Boley said. “We have done things with Sunrise as a team and I was really touched by what they are doing for kids. Money donated to them goes to a great cause and all the things I value as a person. I was really moved by what they do and knew the money would be used the right way.
“One of the biggest things for me staying home at Kentucky to play is to have the biggest impact on the community that I can. I want to do things in the community through opportunities I have in football. I feel I can have a big impact on the community and I am going to try and do a lot of things locally.”

Boley’s father, Scott, said his son did not want to contribute to a charity where he would not know where the money was going.

“Cutter has visited Sunrise and really likes what they do. He’s been out with those kids throwing and catching passes,” Scott, a Lexington dentist, said. “Hopefully he can do more things like this down the road

“I am not going to say I am not proud of him for doing this because I am. He is very conscientious and wants to help others. This was just a great way for him to be able to help others.”

* * *
Quote of the Week: “I think that’s really big, really important, two guys that are high-quality players, they’re leaders. They’re consistently good players for us. That’s a great nucleus for us to start there on the offensive line,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on offensive linemen Marques Cox and Eli Cox returning for the 2024 season.
Quote of the Week 2: “I saw a dog out here today. That kid is going to be great. He showed heart. I love competing and playing with me,” Tennessee Titans receiver DeAndre Hopkins on former UK quarterback Will Levis.
Quote of the Week 3:  "We are going to make the college football playoff and we are going to win it. We are going to sell out this stadium every time we play in it,” former Kentucky linebacker/assistant coach Jon Sumrall after being named head coach at Tulane.