Let’s just start here: While there is a debate to be had about whom they should actually be mad at, it is wrong to suggest (as some have) that Kentucky fans are not justified in their anger that Shaedon Sharpe is leaving without ever playing a minute for the Wildcats. Of course they should be upset now that we know — via multiple sources confirming to The Athletic — that Sharpe plans to enter and stay in the 2022 NBA Draft. It’s hard not to feel like John Calipari’s program got played. Should folks be mad at the shy, quiet 18-year-old at the center of this circus? Probably not. His parents? Nope. Or at least folks shouldn’t be nasty to them online, because (beyond that being generally good advice in civilized society) as a projected lottery pick, he has logical reasons to go pro now. It’s not the decision, rather the handling of this entire situation, that has been absolutely maddening for Kentucky’s program and those who love it.
Here’s why: For months after he announced plans to enroll early at Kentucky, Sharpe, his family and advisor Dwayne Washington told UK’s staff and the public that he planned to practice but not play with the Wildcats for the second semester of last season — but then return to school and play for the team next season. We can confidently say now that was a charade. And for what? Was it all just to validate to the NBA that he meets the league’s requirement for 2022 draft eligibility? Because throughout the last several months, as he was offering so many reassurances of a return, Washington told numerous people on the NBA side that Sharpe definitely planned to be in the 2022 draft. On Thursday, after The Athletic reported as much, Sharpe finally put out a statement saying that he is entering the draft but leaving open a door to return to school. No one in the NBA believes that will happen.
Washington, via text message, declined four times to answer a direct question Thursday: Do you dispute that you’ve been telling people in the NBA that Sharpe plans to stay in the draft? He deflected. “From now on, I’m only going to respond to actual names of people,” Washington wrote. “Because the term ‘NBA people’ is broad. I wouldn’t listen to anyone if I were you. Just go by Shaedon’s statement. Those are the facts.” He added that Sharpe “has no agent!!!!” and concluded “if he wanted to leave, he would have left a long time ago.” Washington wrote that if Sharpe was planning to bolt, why wouldn’t he have an agent, why would he still be taking classes and why would he remain on Kentucky’s campus?
Some answers: because Washington has not yet earned his agent certification, because the spring semester is still not over and, well, Sharpe is actually not on campus anymore; he’s finishing up the semester online.
One scout for a team in this year’s lottery believes there was never a plan for Sharpe to actually play at Kentucky. The scout says he spoke to Washington as far back as the fall and Washington confirmed that Sharpe would be in the 2022 draft.
Here now, a timeline of comments to the contrary.
On Nov. 9, the day news broke that Sharpe would enroll early at Kentucky, Washington told The Athletic: “He will not be going to the draft. He will be playing (at UK) in the 2022-23 season.” He added that Sharpe “may play if the team wants him to.” More on that last bit momentarily.
On Jan. 6, the day she dropped her son off in Lexington, Sharpe’s mother, Julia Bell, told The Athletic: “The conversation with Cal has been consistent throughout: He does not want to throw Shaedon to the wolves. Whether he’ll actually step out there and play in a game this season, your guess is as good as mine. Cal’s point is basically let’s just get him in practice and get the conditioning down and go from there. Honestly, that’s why we picked Kentucky, because we have complete trust and faith that Cal is going to do what’s best for Shaedon and what’s best for the team.”
On Jan. 7, Calipari told reporters: “I talked to (the team) and said, ‘We don’t have a plan for him to play this year.’ Maybe he does, but that is not the plan and never has been. If you ask me right now, my guess is he won’t play. But you don’t know what happens. I mean, we’ve had injury after injury, this happen, that happen. If we’re down to six, seven guys, I may tell him, ‘Look, man, you gotta go in six, seven minutes a game. You gotta play some.’”
On Jan. 20, after reports began surfacing that Sharpe would be eligible for the 2022 draft, his mother texted The Athletic: “Nothing has changed since the last time we talked.” Asked to clarify if that meant he still planned to be at UK next season, Bell wrote, “Yep! That’s the expectation.”
Calipari echoed that sentiment: “It doesn’t change anything. He plans on being here next year. He’s watching. Whether I play him or not this year (depends). If he’s ready to be able to be in games, I’ll put him in.” Yeah, so, about that last thing. Could he have?
On Jan. 24, Calipari said this about Sharpe on his radio show: “I think our team would like me to put him in. Something happens in practice — he does something — and they all kind of look at me like, C’mon, now. That’s who he is? Put him in. But you got to make sure you’re looking after him.”
It’s important to note that at this point, Sharpe and his camp still insisted they’d be back in Lexington after a semester of getting acclimated to college. Washington thought it best to keep him on the bench in the meantime.
The last week of January, Washington told The Athletic: “He’s not in a rush to be somewhere he’s going to be for the next 15 years. It’s like you tell your kids: You’re only going to be a kid for a little while and then you’ll be an adult forever. So what’s the rush, right? The whole, ‘He’s a top-five pick, top-10 pick so he’s gone’ thing? Come on. How many guys have we seen go too early and they’re out of the league in three years. This is a long-term play that we’re doing, and you go to Kentucky instead of somebody else or somewhere else because you want to go through the fire. And you know what that says to NBA people? That you want to be coached. That you want to be around other good players. That you’re doing things the right way. That’s why people get drafted high when they go to Kentucky, because you’re choosing a spot that says, I’m serious about my craft. When people ask why he’s there, I say, ‘Why did you take SAT prep?’ You gotta make sure you can actually pass the test.”
Washington knew fans were clamoring for Sharpe to play and added: “If he plays, he’s going to do well. And if he does well, then he probably is going to leave. Why would you want him to play and leave when you really don’t need him right now? Just because the fans want a shiny object?”
By Feb. 7, Calipari finally put all the speculation to rest and announced Sharpe would not play this season. “He is committed to bettering himself and our team in practice this year and being better prepared to lead us next season,” he said.
This is where Kentucky fans who are sour on Calipari for a lot of other reasons, namely the 9-16 season in 2021 followed up by a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to a No. 15 seed in 2022, turn their rage on the coach . Why didn’t you play him?! How could you not have known you were getting played?! On the latter, Calipari took Washington at his word because he trusted him, having dealt with the prominent Canadian grassroots figure in the recruitment of former Kentucky star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. As for why Calipari didn’t just play him, multiple sources have confirmed that Sharpe and his family were amenable to playing last season and, when injuries piled up in Kentucky’s backcourt, Calipari would’ve gladly done it. But, sources say, Washington intervened and shut that down.
Here’s what Calipari said the night the season ended, when asked if he’d ever reconsidered the decision to not play Sharpe: “At one point, he and I sat down and talked about it. But you know, I think that was what was best for him is how we did it. Would he have been a good player this year? Yeah, he’d have been pretty good. He’d have been pretty good. But he joined us midseason. Trying to get him up to (speed on) all the stuff that we were doing was hard, then it came a point late where maybe we could, should have him in there. We just, you know, together, thing: Let’s just wait.”
That’ll be the theme of Shaedon Sharpe’s four months at Kentucky: just wait. The Wildcats are still waiting. Sharpe hasn’t officially announced anything, and sources believe Washington was hoping to finesse the exit, leave Lexington as quietly and painlessly as possible. Which is, of course, a massive miscalculation about Kentucky’s fan base.
It’s hard to say here what Calipari should’ve done differently. Not take the No. 1 overall recruit’s commitment in September, when it looked like he would come this summer with the rest of UK’s 2022 class? Rescind that offer in November when Sharpe asked to come early and sit out? Force him to play when the person with the most influence on Sharpe — who was still promising to deliver him next season — demands that he sit? It was a perfect storm, and Calipari got caught without an umbrella. His options were quite limited. Worse, by not revealing his real plans sooner, Sharpe has slowed Kentucky’s recruiting effort to replace him. What high-end wing is signing up for that roster without a definitive answer on whether a lottery pick is coming back to school?
What a mess.
When Sharpe announced Thursday that he’ll test the waters, Calipari released his standard-issue statement saying the player will “have my full support” in exploring the draft. “Shaedon has been a great teammate and has handled everything that comes with being a college student-athlete the way he should.” There is no ill will between coach and player.
On March 21, during his final radio show of the season, Calipari called Sharpe a “real star” and a very likeable person. Lots of people agree with both characterizations. By then, though, Calipari’s tone about what comes next had changed. His certainty was gone. “I hope I get a chance to coach him in real games,” he said. Unless Calipari goes to the NBA, as is speculated every offseason, that’s not going to happen.
The circus is leaving town, and yes, there is justifiable anger. Because it never needed to be a circus at all.
(Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)