2021 Draft Workouts: Sharife Cooper

July 15, 2021 - Auburn guard Sharife Cooper speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers at the Ascension St. Vincent Center.

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2021 Draft Workouts: Sharife Cooper

July 15, 2021 - Auburn guard Sharife Cooper speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers at the Ascension St. Vincent Center.
Jul 15, 2021  |  03:41

2021 Draft Workouts: Mac McClung

July 15, 2021 - Texas Tech guard Mac McClung speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers at the Ascension St. Vincent Center.
Jul 15, 2021  |  01:22

2021 Draft Workouts: Chaundee Brown

July 15, 2021 - Michigan guard Chaundee Brown speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers at the Ascension St. Vincent Center.
Jul 15, 2021  |  01:59

2021 Draft Workouts: Dalano Banton

July 15, 2021 - Nebraska guard Dalano Banton speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers at the Ascension St. Vincent Center.
Jul 15, 2021  |  02:13

2021 Draft Workouts: Jose Alvarado

July 15, 2021 - Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers at the Ascension St. Vincent Center.
Jul 15, 2021  |  02:08

2021 Draft Workouts: Jalen Crutcher

July 15, 2021 - Dayton guard Jalen Crutcher speaks with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers at the Ascension St. Vincent Center.
Jul 15, 2021  |  01:32

Cooper's Tantalizing Talent Intrigues Indiana

by Wheat Hotchkiss
Pacers.com Writer/Editor
@Wheat_Hotchkiss

Sharife Cooper's college career was brief, but memorable.

A variety of factors conspired to limit the 6-1 guard to just 12 games during his freshman season at Auburn. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic shorten the 2020-21 season, but Cooper's Auburn debut was delayed while the NCAA reviewed his eligibility. He was eventually cleared on Jan. 9 after sitting out the first 11 games of the season and joined his teammates that day against rival Alabama, the Tigers' fourth conference game of the year.

The Crimson Tide — the eventual SEC champions — prevailed, 94-90, but Cooper nearly led Auburn to a significant upset. The Powder Springs, Ga. native tallied a team-high 26 points, nine assists, and three steals in his college debut.

Four days later, Cooper recorded a double-double in his second career game, scoring 28 points and dishing out 12 assists (to go along with five rebounds and two steals) in a win over Georgia.

For the next month, he wreaked havoc on the SEC, collecting two more double-doubles and averaging 20.2 points, 8.1 assists, and 4.3 rebounds in 12 contests up through Feb. 20. Cooper's performance was all the more impressive given his interminable layoff, during which the combination of COVID-19 restrictions and his eligibility review severely limited his practice time.

"Trying to envision myself there without being there, that was ultimately key," Cooper, who headlined Thursday's pre-draft workout for the Pacers, said of his mindset leading up to being cleared to play. "Just the amount of work, I feel like it showed when I finally got back the amount of work I put in. There were so many restrictions on what I could do, but I tried to make the most out of it."

An ankle injury in practice prevented Cooper from suiting up for the Tigers' final four regular season contests and a self-imposed postseason ban kept Auburn from competing in the SEC or NCAA Tournaments. Just like that, Cooper's college career was over. To no one's surprise, he declared for the NBA Draft on April 2 and is projected to likely go in the first round of the draft on July 29, with the potential to go in the lottery.

While Cooper was the equivalent of a shooting star in college — blink and you might have missed him — he hopes to have a long-term impact in the NBA.

Cooper's most enticing attributes are his abilities as a playmaker. While he can certainly score the basketball — averaging over 20 points as a freshman against SEC competition speaks for itself — Cooper prides himself even more on his passing. During his 12 games at Auburn, he assisted on an absurd 52.1 percent of the Tigers' field goals while on the floor.

"Being the point guard, I have a job of making everybody happy," Cooper said. "With my role as a point guard, I feel like passing ultimately makes me feel best just to see somebody else get it going. I always feel like I can score when need be, but seeing somebody else do their thing is also fun."

While he is smaller in stature at 6-1, 180, Cooper still fits the mold of other undersized playmakers like Trae Young and his idol Chris Paul, who have managed to thrive in the NBA with their offensive feel.

Still, Cooper has some room to grow. He shot just 13-for-57 (22.8 percent) from 3-point range while at Auburn. He could just be the victim of a limited sample size, but teams will want to see him shoot better in pre-draft workouts. His .825 free-throw percentage on over eight attempts per game does suggest that he has the touch to be a much more consistent threat from beyond the arc.

Given his size, there will also be questions about Cooper's defense and his ability to guard bigger ballhandlers. And while he is dynamic as a playmaker, Cooper did also average over four turnovers per game at Auburn. Some of that can be attributed to his high usage rate, but he will need to show more restraint at the next level.

Still, it's easy to see the case for a player with Cooper's talents to go in the lottery. The Pacers have the 13th overall pick and could be in the market for a backup point guard with T.J. McConnell entering free agency.

Cooper has a deep familiarity with the Pacers' roster — when asked about the franchise on Thursday he listed off nearly every player on the team — and thinks he could find a home in Indiana.

"I feel like I could fit right in," he said. "Help those guys as well as they help me, just ultimately build something special here. I feel like that's definitely possible for me to do. I would love to be here."

With draft night two weeks away, Cooper said he is focused on enjoying every part of the pre-draft process. His focus at this point is less on his basketball abilities and more on how he can fit in to an NBA locker room.

"Just a leader, somebody that doesn't expect much, wants to come in and gain everything he gets," Cooper said of what the team that drafts him will get. "A good locker room guy, someone who likes to have fun. Bring a fun style to the team, elevate his teammates and just be a good person. I feel like the on-the-court stuff will come. I feel like I'm a great player and I can figure it out."

Is that pitch enticing enough to persuade the Pacers' front office to take him? We'll find out soon enough.

Mac McClung, Dalano Banton

Texas Tech's Mac McClung (left) and Nebraska's Dalano Banton (right) have intriguing physical tools. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)

McClung, Banton Hoping to Stand Out

Aside from Cooper, the other five guards who participated in Thursday's pre-draft workout are all generally seen as possible second-round picks. Of that crop, two players stand out for their physical attributes.

Neither Texas Tech's Mac McClung nor Nebraska's Dalano Banton were invited to the NBA Draft Combine, but both did impress during the G League Elite Camp, a secondary combine for prospects.

McClung is another undersized guard at 6-2 and 180 pounds, but he showed off his athleticism during the testing portion of the camp. He demonstrated both his leaping ability and his speed with his 43.5-inch vertical and 2.935 time in the 3/4 court sprint, both of which were the best measurements among all prospects at the G League Elite Camp.

After two seasons as one of the top scorers at Georgetown, McClung transferred to Texas Tech last year for his junior season. He led the Red Raiders in scoring at 15.5 points per game while also averaging 2.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists.

While at Texas Tech, McClung — who had previously garnered notoriety when his high school highlights went viral on YouTube — had another moment that captured the internet, when he hit the game-winning shot in the closing seconds of a win at then-fourth-ranked Texas on Jan. 4.

McClung said his biggest growth at Texas Tech, however, came off the court.

"I really sat down and went in the film room and took that to another level," he said. "Studying film, I made that a daily habit for myself. I feel like that helped me out a lot."

As for his potential role at the next level, McClung cited a number of disruptive point guards as potential inspirations, including one Pacers fan favorite.

"I just kind of look at certain players like Fred VanVleet and Lou Williams and T.J. McConnell with the Pacers," McClung said. "I really look up to him and his competitive nature."

Banton is also a point guard by trade, though you wouldn't guess it upon first glance. The lanky, 6-9, 195-pound Toronto native grew over an inch during his three years in college (he sat out the 2019-20 season at Nebraska after transferring from Western Kentucky).

As a sophomore last season for the Cornhuskers, Banton did a little bit of everything, averaging 9.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists. He displayed those abilities again at the G League Elite Camp, where he led all prospects in both rebounds and assists during scrimmages.

"I feel like just with the game turning into a positionless sport, everybody's trying to be able to play everywhere on the floor," Banton said. "Being able to do a lot of things on the floor with my vision, my feel for the game, and my size and versatility, I can bring a lot to the table to a team."

While at Nebraska, Banton played for former Pacer Fred Hoiberg. "The Mayor" spent 10 seasons in the NBA as a player, the first four in Indiana, before embarking on a coaching career. He produced several NBA players while he was the head coach at Iowa State and also coached the Chicago Bulls from 2015-18.

Banton said he believed Hoiberg's NBA experience was a huge benefit to his own development and noted that Nebraska ran an offensive system similar to most NBA teams.

"Him being a basketball player first and being able to understand him, we clicked really well," Banton said of his relationship with his coach. "(He was) able to understand me and he knows what we go through as basketball players because he's been through it all. Just that level of respect and being able to connect with him as a coach, as a brother, as a friend, that's where we took our relationship to the next level."

Jose Alvarado, Chaundee Brown, Jalen Crutcher

Georgia Tech's Jose Alvarado (left), Michigan's Chaundee Brown (middle), and Dayton's Jalen Crutcher (right) enter the NBA Draft after decorated college careers. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)

Four-Year Players Hoping to Carve Out NBA Role

Though all three of Jose Alvarado, Chaundee Brown, and Jalen Crutcher played four college seasons, each was technically eligible for a fifth year in school thanks to NCAA rules regarding the pandemic. But each ultimately elected to turn pro after celebrated college careers.

Alvarado had a double-digit scoring average in each of his four seasons at Georgia Tech and averaged 15.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 4.1 assists as a senior. The 6-foot guard may be small in stature, but he loomed large on the court with his energetic style of play, particularly on the defensive end.

The ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2020-21, Alvarado averaged 2.8 steals per game last season and amassed 226 takeaways over the course of his career. Though he will face a challenge against bigger, stronger guards at the NBA level, Alvarado knows that his defensive tenacity will be his "go-to card" that could earn him playing time.

Alvarado also could be a good fit in a locker room after leading an impressive program turnaround. The Yellow Jackets went just 6-12 in ACC play in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but steadily improved and ultimately captured the ACC Tournament title in March, the program's first since 1993.

"It meant everything," Alvarado said. "That was so big for the whole program, for me and for everyone at Georgia Tech. Because we had a rough four years there. Everyone doubted us. Just for us to be on top and show that we belong, we've been there and we're supposed to be there, it felt really good just to win for the whole program and just for everybody around Atlanta."

Another player driven by winning is Brown, a 6-5 wing who transferred to Michigan for his senior season after three years at Wake Forest in hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament before his college career ended.

Not only did Brown accomplish his goal, he helped the Wolverines reach the Elite 8.

After starting nearly ever contest at Wake Forest, Brown willingly accepted a sixth-man role at Michigan, where he averaged 8 points and 3.1 rebounds in just under 20 minutes per night. Playing that role, Brown's numbers fluctuated, but he was able to contribute significantly in March.

He did not score and took just one shot in Michigan's first-round win over Texas Southern, but dropped a team-high 21 points in the next round against LSU. Brown then tallied 12 more points in the Sweet 16 victory over Florida State and went 7-for-11 from 3-point range over the course of the tournament.

"Before I committed to Michigan, I knew what my role was going to be," Brown said. "Most likely that's going to be my role in the NBA as well. So I said, 'Why not practice it now and show that I can play with a great group of guys, first-rounders, second-rounders'...I wanted to show scouts and a lot of people that I can play with other people."

The best development for Brown's draft stock was his improved 3-point percentage in Ann Arbor. After shooting just 32 percent from beyond the arc in his last two seasons at Wake Forest, Brown posted a .419 3-point percentage with the Wolverines, an improvement he credited to countless hours in the gym.

Brown also had the benefit of learning from Michigan coach Juwan Howard, a 19-year NBA veteran now leading one of the nation's top college programs.

"He's going to get the best out of you," Brown said. "He keeps it real with you and that's what I know the NBA's going to be like. He's coming from the NBA so he's been around those guys. He keeps it real with you. I needed a coach like that. He gets on you if you're not competing or you're being lazy and that's the type of person that I need in my life."

Crutcher, a 6-1 guard, was a four-year starter at Dayton. He was one of the stars on a Flyers team that was one of the favorites to capture the national title in 2020 before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, averaging 15.1 points and 4.9 assists.

After teammate Obi Toppin turned pro, Crutcher took on an even larger offensive role as a senior, leading the team in both scoring (17.6 points per game) and assists (4.8).

Crutcher's most enticing attribute is his shooting ability. He attempted at least five 3-pointers per game in each of his four seasons at Dayton and converted at a high clip, shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc over his final two seasons.

As for his NBA role model, the Memphis native singled out former Grizzly and Indianapolis' own Mike Conley.

"Same kind of body frame, same kind of style of play — get in there and shoot floaters, make threes, make big-time plays, just make the right play," Crutcher said.

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