HAMPTON, Va. – Two years ago, Collin Sexton came into the Nike EYBL as an unranked player hungry to gain respect at the national level.
He parlayed that hunger into production, leading the league in scoring and subsequently rising from unknown to five-star prospect and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sexton is expected to be a lottery pick in the next month’s NBA Draft after a dominant freshman season at Alabama.
Ever since then, everyone’s been on the hunt for the next “Collin Sexton,” a player who would rise from obscurity to the proverbial mountaintop.
That said, Sharife Cooper doesn’t have the Collin Sexton story.
Cooper didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but if you ask AOT’s (Ga.) point guard if he can relate to Sexton’s sentiments of being underrated, Cooper won’t hesitate to tell you, “Yes!”
“I’ve never felt like people really gave me much respect,” said Cooper, a sophomore. “I’m not ranked in some rankings and some have me lower, but that’s OK; I’d rather be the slept on.”
He won’t have much luck wearing that label after checking in at No. 10 overall in USA Today Sports’ inaugural Chosen 25 player rankings for 2020, which dropped this week.
He certainly looked the part dropping 31 points, dishing out eight assists, grabbing seven rebounds a swiping three steals in Saturday’s 71-57 win over the Oakland Soldiers (Calif.) at the Nike EYBL Hampton.
Cooper is coming off of a dominant season with McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.) where he averaged 21 points, seven assists and four rebounds despite playing with five other Division I players. He continued his dominant run this spring pumping in 20.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and a Nike EYBL leading seven assists a game.
Goodbye underdog, hello bull’s-eye.
“It feels good to finally be getting some of the respect I’ve been working so hard for,” Cooper said. “There were times when I thought I was gonna get more national respect then it never happened.”
Like back in December when he dropped 43 points on McDonald’s All American point guard Jahvon Quinerly at the City of Palms Classic in Florida. He went on to average 27 points and eight assists a game, which led the tournament.
“It was frustrating because nothing changed nationally,” Cooper said. “I had to focus on the things I could control.”
That was also around the time that his dad Omar, who coaches Sharife at AOT, implemented his own methodology to help his son refocus after back-to-back bad showings at a tournament in Ohio.
“I notice everything with my son,” Omar said. “You come into the gym and you’re on your phone. You leave the gym you’re on your phone. The only time you’re not on your phone is when you’re playing. You can’t focus like that. He’s got to be in the mindset of discipline, focus and doing without.”
Sharife hasn’t had his phone since December.
When asked if he’s got any plans to return the phone in the immediate future, Omar said, “No.”
“My logic is simple: If I see that when you do this you’re 0-for-10 and when you do this other thing you’re 10-for-10 then let’s do away with the thing that’s making you 0-for-10,” Omar said. “Focus is the key.”
Cooper’s motivations coming into the spring weren’t atypical of most players lacing ‘em up on summer circuits; he wanted his respect, he wanted to get better and then there was that embarrassing 75-55 loss to Norcross (Ga.) in the Class AAAAAAA state basketball quarterfinals on March 1.
“That one hurt,” Cooper said. “I left that game and went straight to the gym.”
Yes, that very night; Cooper made a beeline for the gym at 11:30 p.m. to work off his frustrations.
“I wasn’t in the best of spirits,” Cooper said. “We were favored to win it all and lost because we didn’t bring any energy… I knew that I couldn’t let that happen again.”
That night Cooper posted “we will be back…” on his Twitter and has had it pinned there ever since.
“That was definitely a big motivation for me this spring,” Cooper said.
Still, perhaps his greatest motivation to be great has nothing to do with who he’s playing against now and everything to do with who he played against coming up.
Cooper’s sister Te’a was MVP of the McDonald’s All American Game in 2015 and went on to play at Tennessee before transferring to South Carolina, where she’s at currently.
She was something of a legend in high school, leading McEachern to three state titles and winning a gold medal with the USA Basketball U17 World Championship Team in 2014.
“She was my biggest competition when I was in middle school,” Cooper said. “I can definitely beat her now, but that only happened around my freshman year. She’s tough though. Battling with her helped me develop a defensive mindset too. No one wants to be scored on by their sister. That helps me now.”
Cooper said coming into games, especially when he’s playing another elite guard, his primary goal is to “lock them up on the defensive end.”
“Some guys don’t check the other top guard, but that’s not me,” Cooper said. “I don’t want him to have any points. That’s how I think. I’m not worried about the offensive end because I know what I’m gonna do there. I always challenge myself on the defensive end. That’s another thing that’s made me who I am.”
That said, don’t mistake Cooper’s tone for any sort of sense of arrival; he’s determined not to let his intensity magically taper off now that he’s a top 10 player nationally.
“My dad raised me different,” Cooper said. “He taught me to never take anything for granted. Getting to where I’m at only makes me hungrier than when I wasn’t ranked. I’m serious. When I look back, not getting the attention early was the best thing that could’ve happened to me because it taught me what’s important. The only thing I focus on is working. That’s the only way to win.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY