Q&A With Sharife Cooper’s High School Coach Mike Thompson

Sharife Cooper is expected to be Auburn’s starting point guard this season, after joining the team as the highest ranked recruit in program history earlier this summer.

Cooper is coming off one of the best high school careers of the past decade, and Mike Thompson (Cooper’s head coach from McEachern High School) filled us in on what to expect from Cooper and gave us some thoughts about (former) Auburn forward Isaac Okoro and Auburn center Babatunde Akingbola, who played with Cooper at McEachern.

Can you give us an overview of Sharife Cooper’s game?

Thompson: Sharife Cooper is ahead of his time, as far as age goes. His father had a lot to do with that. Being around the game, learning the game the right way and learning how to lead a team.

A lot of [middle schoolers] come to watch [high school] games, but I noticed that [Cooper] was hanging around our team a lot. Early on I asked him to come in the locker room with us. We made a run all the way to the semi finals or quarter finals that year and he was there for that entire season. He was paying attention. He knew what was required and what was needed.

His work ethic? You don’t have to say much about that. He’s in the gym as much as anyone. When a player is in the gym all the time and doing everything the right way, it makes it hard for guys to not go along with that.

He has a unique understanding of offense. He’s a tremendous offensive player.

It doesn’t take him long to watch guy and say “he needs the ball right here. He doesn’t need the ball right here. This is his game, this isn’t his game.” He makes those kind of evaluations quicker than any point guard I’ve ever seen.

How does that play into his ability to facilitate offense?

Thompson: Part of that is we gave him the ball 95-percent of the time. For me, that was by design. Sometimes coaches over-coach, but if you have a once in a generation point guard, you give him the ball and let him make decisions about where the ball goes. 9-times-of-10, he made the right decision.

His errors and mistakes as a point guard came from trying to do too much, because he feels responsible for the outcome. Sometimes that got him a little bit, especially last year.

I don’t think anyone would have picked us to go to the Final Four, and I think [us making it that far] had a lot to do with his leadership and the way he brought our team together.

How did Cooper overcome his lack of size and how do you expect him to continue to overcome it in college?

Thompson: He’s an ultra-competitor. He never backs down. He’ll fight for what he thinks in basketball terms is necessary for him to be successful.

One of the things that’s going to help him tremendously at Auburn, and I’ve already seen it happening is when he gets stronger, which he’s doing right now, he’s gonna be a handful.

People will still question if he’ll have success with an SEC-caliber 6’2″ guard defending him, I don’t know the answer to that other than: I had doubts ever since he came here as a freshman about if he’d be able to do that. And every time I had that doubt, he proved me wrong. He did handle that.

He’s very sneaky too. He knows all of the little tricks. He knows all of the little angles. It’s really amazing to watch him work around the basket.

And it’s not like he hasn’t played against really good, big people already. Look at his career in high school and summer. There’s not a good player he hasn’t played against.

Scottie Barnes guarded him better than anyone probably guarded him during his high school career and Scottie Barnes is [a future] NBA player. For Sharife to go toe-to-toe with that guy … He doesn’t back down from that kind of thing. He’s just used to it. I don’t know if it’s a grudge he has from people telling him he’s too small, but he doesn’t need much to turn it into a challenge.

People knock Cooper’s defense, but he racked up a lot of steals in high school and showed good anticipation skills. What do you think he’ll be able to do on that side of the court in college?

Thompson: He knows his deficiencies. If you watched Auburn play last year, you know that they played tremendous man-to-man defense. He came into practice last year after going to a game, and I had watched the same game. After practice, I sat down beside him and said, “I have a question for you.” That’s all I said. He stood up and said, “Coach, coach, I can do that.” He knew I was going to ask him if he could put together a defensive effort like that through an entire ball game.

The toll handling the ball 95-percent of the time took on him, I let him get away with taking some breaks on that side of the court. But when it comes down to playing or not playing, or when it comes down to doing the right thing, he’s going to do that, and that’s when his anticipations skills he has are really going to pay off.

If we played a really good player on the other team, I knew to put him on him. The challenge of stopping that guy more than he stopped Sharife would really motivate him. He’s different than Isaac. Isaac truly enjoyed playing on that end of the floor and was an elite defender. Sharife on the other hand was an offensive player, and those guys don’t always like defense. That’s where his growth needs to come, and I think he’ll get there.

I think he’s better off the ball because of those anticipation skills and because he can read offensive plays. He’s not going to see something on offense that he hasn’t seen before. I think a lot of times he looks better when he plays defense off the ball. He gets burned sometimes using that anticipation, but the strength and conditioning they get into will help.

Teams might try to post him up, but that’s a bad idea. For some reason, that jumps in his britches. He’s not gonna have that. He’s going to fight that.

Cooper and Okoro also played with Auburn center Babatunde Akingbola for you at McEachern. While it has been a couple of years, can you talk about where Akingbola’s offensive game was at McEachern and what you expect from him in a bigger role at Auburn?

Thompson: We worked on his [shot and offensive game] a lot. With his back to the basket, he’s not bad. He can do some things. But he’d rather face the basket, even if he’s posted up off the block. His outside shooting progressed during the years he was here, and I’d say at Auburn, I don’t see him work out every day, but I imagine that’s one of the things he works on.

He’s a good free throw shooter, and he has a good looking shot.

We had a deal here. He could always take one, and if he made it, that bought him another try. If he missed it, he had to wait. He had fun with it, and that’s a part of his game he enjoyed doing. I think he’ll be proficient at that.

It’s been a while with Stretch, but I don’t think his defensive ability has ever been in question. I think he’s one of the most vocal and competent defenders I’ve seen at the high school level. He just needed to gain some confidence and more offensive skill to be a plus at the college level, and I think he has probably done that.

What sort of impact did you notice Isaac Okoro having on last season’s Auburn team?

Thompson: There’s nowhere Isaac Okoro goes where he doesn’t have an impact. He had an impact here from the day he stepped on campus.

He carries some unique qualities that not every kid is gifted with. His character, his worth ethic on the floor and how he works on his game when no one else is around. He had a big impact on Sharife. Sharife was a guy that led our basketball team, but he didn’t lead our basketball team without the OK from Isaac Okoro and without support from Isaac Okoro.

I’m not shocked at all that he’ll be drafted higher in the NBA than a lot of the guys he wore out in high school, who also kept him off the McDonald’s All-American team and those kinds of things.

Takeaways:

Jay: One of the things that stood out to me most was Thompson mentioning how it took someone like Scottie Barnes (a 6’8″ 200+ lb do-it-all, five-star, top-10 forward) defending Cooper for an entire game to slow him down. There aren’t many players like Barnes in the world, none the less in college basketball, and Cooper still got his in both match ups with Montverde that season. A Montverde assistant also said Cooper was the best guard 6’0″ or under that he saw that season, based on Cooper’s performances against Barnes and Montverde.

Drew: I’m a big fan of the way Thompson trusted Cooper to run their offense and play his game freely at his own pace. We saw it a lot from Bruce Pearl with Jared Harper at Auburn. Having a player who can take over an offense, whether scoring or facilitating, is a valuable weapon, especially in postseason play. I expect we’ll see Cooper take over our offense more often than not.

I also wanted to comment on Thompson’s mention of Cooper’s “next level” type mentality. It’s exemplified in his tape, and it’s what I am most excited about with him. Not only is he quicker and more skilled than you, Cooper also seemingly plays the game two steps ahead of opposing teams, constantly able to react to anything thrown his way. Pairing his game with Pearl’s philosophies sounds like a near perfect match.

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