Shaedon Sharpe has been a reason to smile for the Portland Trail Blazers through the first three weeks of the NBA season. The expectation on the sophomore wing rose considerably during the offseason after he enjoyed a successful end to the 2022-23 campaign.
Fortunately for all involved, Sharpe has risen to the challenge, showing overt growth on each side of the floor, both as a sixth man and starter. Through eight games he’s averaged 19.9 points on 36 percent from three, 5.3 boards, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steal and 0.8 blocks.
During the preseason, I suggested Sharpe and Anfernee Simons’ chances of winning Most Improved Player were low given the fact that Blazers weren’t going to be very good. The other important note in Sharpe’s candidacy was that second year players don’t typically win the award — the last being Monta Ellis back in 2007.
The Blazers are still going to be bad, but the point about him being a sophomore may be less significant considering his unique situation. The young Canadian went to Kentucky without playing a game in 2021-22, keeping him behind his eventual NBA rookie classmates who competed at either a professional or NCAA level that year.
Sharpe’s red shirt year meant his first NBA season was, for all intents a purposes, a catch-up campaign. The disadvantage meant he was both picking up the speed of the NBA game while learning from the mistakes he should have faced at Kentucky.
That means the 2023-24 season will be his first to apply his unique and talented skillset, which has now been calibrated to an NBA degree of difficulty.
Quick note on the Most Improved Player award
Most Improved Player is probably one of the more subjectively chosen prizes. The last 15 recipients have included Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Ja Morant as well as Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Victor Oladipo, Goran Dragic and Ryan Anderson.
Criteria for the award are not 100 percent clear. Some have won the award because of increased opportunity and inflated statistics, leaving others experiencing the most being overlooked because of their access to the court.
For instance, Randle won the award in 2021 after making his first All Star game as a member of the New York Knicks. He beat out Jaylen Brown who solidified himself as an All Star while sharing the limelight with teammate Jayson Tatum. Similar cases could be made for Bam Adebayo over Ingram in 2020 or Nikola Pekovic over Anderson in 2012.
Sharpe’s progress was a pleasure to watch last season. Through October and November 2022, he averaged 10-20 minutes a night off the bench. By the end of the season he was playing 30-plus.
The athletic wing finished 2022-23 with season averages of 22.2 minutes, 9.9 points, 2.2 boards and 1.2 assists. But the numbers he recorded in March and April appear to be more reflective of his current production with 23.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists recorded over the final 10 games.
There were regular defensive lapses during his rookie year. Sharpe was unable to stay out of foul trouble or stay in front of opponents. But despite obvious growing pains, there were signs that improved defense would come with time and experience. A season later, one might argue that he’s already on par or a little further ahead as a stopper when compared to Damian Lilllard, Anfernee Simons and CJ McCollum.
Court time has made a big difference for Sharpe this year. His 2022-23 average read 22.2 minutes, but he rarely got more than 20 minutes early in the season. This year, he’s playing 39.1 minutes a night, a great start for someone contending for a prize typically awarded to those with increased playing time.
While the following stats compare his full rookie season with the eight games played this year, I think it’s interesting to look at where Sharpe stacks up early on.
- This season, Sharpe has increased his usage from 50th (17.3%) in 2022-23 to 15th (22.0%) among wings.
- In points per shot attempt he’s risen from 50th (1.14) to 20th (1.16)
- In steals he’s gone from 92nd (0.5) to 42nd (1.0)
- His assist percentage has gone from 82nd (7.5%) to 30th (12.2%).
- His three-point shooting has jumped from 53rd (37%) to 22nd (38%), 59th (35%) to 31st (40%) on non-corner threes.
- Sharpe has also gone from 59th (40%) to 20th (47%) from the midrange and from 96th (71.3%) to 56th (82.5%) in free throw percentage.
- Sharpe has become a natural contact drawer, hiking his free throw attempts from 1.3 to 5.0 this season — an increase of almost 400 percent.
With the ball in his hands, the 20-year-old looks comfortable running the offense, creating for others, shooting off the dribble or just careering at the rim.
As already discussed, on defense he’s more aware of the opposition, better able to stay with opponents, not to mention perimeter shot blocking. This was exemplified by the late-game swat on Luke Kennard during the Blazers’ win over the Grizzlies last week.
The game has slowed down for Sharpe. He has maintained his explosiveness while increasing his confidence. The matured stance was particularly noticeable on November 1st when he led the Blazers to a win over the Detroit Pistons, putting the team on his shoulders. He assumed the “he can’t be stopped on offense” role and it was a natural fit.
Early competition for the prize
Cade Cunningham (Detroit Pistons), Tyrese Maxey (Philadelphia 76ers), Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors), Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets), Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves) Mikal Bridges (Brooklyn Nets) and Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic) appear to be the early names.
Cunningham, Barnes, Sengun and Wagner are third-year players, Maxey and Edwards are in their fourth campaigns, and Bridges has just started his sixth.
Cunningham has hit the ground running this season, putting up 24.0 points, 3.7 boards and 7.1 assists, after suffering through an injury-plagued sophomore year last season.
With the departure of James Harden, Maxey is now Joel Embiid’s number one running mate. He’s averaging 25.4 points on 40.7 percent from three, 5.1 boards, 7.0 assists and 0.9 steals.
After winning Rookie of the Year, Barnes slumped last season. He looks to have turned it around, averaging 21.5 points on 38.1 percent from three, 10.4 boards, 6.0 assists, 1.5 assists and 2.1 blocks.
Sengun reportedly grew two inches over the summer, a development that’s almost certain to expand his game. He’s putting up 18.3 points, 8.3 boards, 6.6 assists and 0.9 steals on a frisky Rockets squad.
Edwards’ star is truly rising, contributing to winning basketball while registering 27.9 points on 43.2 percent from three, 6.1 boards, 5.3 assists and 1.1 steals. The only hindrance here is that Edwards actually made an All Star game earlier this year so voters might not see his jump as significantly as others.
Bridges is now the man in Brooklyn and will be given us much opportunity to shine as possible. He’s averaging 20.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals, adding a use full ballhandling-facilitating element to his game
Finally, Wagner came off an inspiring FIBA World Cup performance and looked poised to help vault the Magic up the standings. His numbers so far read 17.9 points. 5.8 boards, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals.
The preseason prediction downplaying Sharpe’s chances at Sixth Man of the Year may have changed, but there’s still 74 games to be played. The Blazers are not going to be good this season, which will hurt his chances, especially with the likes of Edwards, Barnes, Bridges and Maxey on better squads.
For Sharpe to win the award, he’d have to shine in spite of the franchise’s likely poor record. That means more than just athletic dunks and highlight plays, it’s going to take consistency, maturity, and leadership on a very young squad. That’s a high expectation for a young player by any stretch, but Sharpe is not your average 20-year-old NBA wing.