John Clay: Could Reed Sheppard be the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NBA draft? Yes, he could.

John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Basketball

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Before Reed Sheppard became a Kentucky Wildcat, yours truly heard through the grapevine that a respected coach opined he was sure the high school hero would be a good college player. He was not so sure Sheppard would be a pro.

One year later, that same Reed Sheppard could be the No. 1 overall selection in the NBA draft on June 26.

Seriously, he could. The son of Jeff and Stacey Sheppard, who not long ago was sinking jumpers for the North Laurel Jaguars before continuing on to become both the SEC and the United States Basketball Writers Association’s freshman of the year, could be the first player to shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next month.

We’re not just saying this because Sheppard crushed the NBA draft combine in Chicago on Monday, though he did. Officially measuring at 6-foot-3, Sheppard produced a 42-inch vertical leap, which tied for the combine’s best. He impressed in assorted agility drills. He caught fire in the 3-point shooting drill. There was nothing not to like.

We are saying that Sheppard could go No. 1 because the Atlanta Hawks won the NBA draft lottery conducted Sunday. A 36-46 team that was eliminated in the NBA’s play-in tournament, the Hawks have a number of viable options.

“The Hawks could trade this pick, though I wouldn’t,” former Herald-Leader staffer Mark Bradley, now sports columnist of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote on Monday. “I’d trade Trae Young and use the pick to secure a replacement. Maybe it’s Rob Dillingham, a guard from Kentucky. Maybe it’s Reed Sheppard, another guard from Kentucky and the son of Jeff Sheppard, briefly a Hawk.”

Though the NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player in Kentucky’s 1998 national championship run, Jeff Sheppard went undrafted. Being from Marietta and having played his high school basketball in Peachtree City, Sheppard signed as a free agent with the hometown Hawks. Alas, Jeff’s NBA career lasted a mere 18 games.

Reed’s should last longer. Much longer. His skills fit the so-called modern game while somehow managing to be old-school all the same. Forget the shooting and scoring. We knew that from his high school days. It was Sheppard’s feel for the game that wowed us once he pulled on the Kentucky blue.


Remember, Sheppard was the fifth-highest recruit in UK’s 2023 class. He was ranked 79th overall. One more reason not to trust those rankings.

At one of the the season’s day-before-game press conferences, we asked then UK assistant Bruiser Flint when the staff first knew the Cats had something special in its baby-faced rookie. Flint said it was the practices before Kentucky’s summer trip to Canada. Playing with and against John Calipari’s marquee recruits, Sheppard did far more than hold his own.

That continued when the real stuff began. In 28.9 minutes per game, Sheppard averaged 12.5 points, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game. He made 75 of his 144 3-point shots for a ridiculous 52.1%. He made 83.1% of his free throws.

To be sure, Sheppard was a freshman. He could occasionally be careless with the ball. Calipari said Sheppard had the best hands of any player he’d ever coached, but at times the guard found himself out of position when unsuccessfully attempting a steal. He scored a mere three points in 26 minutes during the Cats’ 80-76 loss to No. 14 seed Oakland in the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Ah, but Sheppard does not turn 20 years of age until two days before the draft. He’ll only get better.

NBA “insiders” agree. The league’s website produced a compilation of mock drafts which had Sheppard going to the San Antonio Spurs with the No. 4 overall pick. Yahoo Sports had Sheppard going ninth to Memphis. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish has Sheppard as the No. 2 overall prospect. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer has Charlotte picking Sheppard at No. 6.

Most of those mocks were posted pre-combine. So Sheppard could go higher. Much higher. The highest. He could go No. 1, in fact. The Hawks could make it happen.

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