The inexperienced letters on the digital signal beside Hal Rogers Parkway flash, “Welcome to the Jungle.” However North Laurel Excessive College, house of the Jaguars, presents a serene exterior on this February night. Nothing wild appears to be taking place right here.
The encircling hillsides are blanketed in snow and chilly and quiet, and the pickup-dotted car parking zone behind the health club is lower than half full. The very best present on the town, in Laurel County, in all the basketball-mad state of Kentucky, is on the market for less than restricted in-person viewing.
Contained in the health club, the 14-member North Laurel pep band is bleating out an endearingly threadbare model of “Candy Caroline.” It is a trusty audience-participation tune, however there may be not a lot viewers and even much less participation—an enviornment that seats 2,200 has fewer than 200 followers in it, per restrictions. As such, ticket demand dwarfs provide. “If it weren’t for COVID-19, we’d be standing-room-only each recreation,” says coach Nate Valentine. “I’ve had everyone from the mailman to the UPS folks to you identify it calling or knocking on the door asking for tickets.”
Laurel Countians badly need to see their Jaguars, 19–0 and ranked No. 2 and main the state in scoring at 90.3 factors per recreation. Most of all, they’re wanting to gauge the sport of the crew’s point-guard prodigy, the son of two College of Kentucky greats, sophomore Reed Sheppard. Everyone seems to be impatiently ready to witness the largest basketball recruit to return out of the mountains of Japanese Kentucky in a long time—and to see if he can convey a couple of change within the more and more unpopular approach the Wildcats roster is constructed.
The son of Jeff and Stacey Sheppard—the Most Excellent Participant of the lads’s 1998 Remaining 4 and a top-15 profession scorer within the ladies’s program at UK—is routinely blowing up field scores. He’s averaging a state-leading 33.1 factors per recreation, twice scoring greater than 50. He’s had a number of triple doubles, together with one recreation with 17 assists. However it’s taking place towards modest competitors, in a sparsely populated a part of the state, amid a recruiting shutdown.
For now, Sheppard is an echo, a word-of-mouth delusion wrapped in COVID-19 thriller. In a world the place younger basketball skills are usually overexposed by age 16, right here comes one with a uncommon factor of suspense. The 2020 AAU circuit barely existed, and faculty coaches nonetheless haven’t been permitted to go on the highway to see prospects. Recruiting web sites barely have a e-book of any form of the 6′ 2″ sophomore level guard.
The statistics and spotlight movies and bloodlines have constructed the hype; will it transform actual? And whether it is actual, will Kentucky coach John Calipari halt the one-and-done NBA meeting line—which not often makes use of in-state components—to make a scholarship provide to Sheppard?
“It’s going to be the massive story of the subsequent couple years,” says longtime Lexington Herald-Chief columnist John Clay. “Is Cal going to recruit him? How laborious is he going to recruit him? And is he going to get him?”
It’s right here, on this Appalachian city of about 8,000 deep in Huge Blue nation, the place the subsequent referendum on Calipari’s more and more ineffective and domestically unpopular recruiting philosophy may play out. The trail to school basketball nationwide championships the previous 5 years is to “get previous and keep previous,” to make use of the time period presently well-liked with coaches. Outdated is 21 and 22; younger is eighteen and 19. The younger guys who view UK as an NBA stopover have stopped delivering Remaining Fours and nationwide titles for Calipari, who final led a crew to the Remaining 4 in 2015 and whose present squad is placing the ending touches on the varsity’s first dropping season in 32 years. So is he keen to attempt a distinct strategy? And will that completely different strategy begin with a Kentucky legacy recruit from a area of the state that has at all times been politically sophisticated for coaches of the Cats?
The sport suggestions off, and it’s instantly clear that Whitley County is in bother. The Colonels are enjoying a unfastened 2–3 zone, hoping North Laurel’s shooters miss and that the high-octane Jaguars don’t flip this right into a full-court layup line. These hopes are rapidly dashed.
After two minutes and 9 seconds, Whitley calls timeout. The rating is 11–0, and Sheppard has both scored or assisted on all 4 North Laurel baskets. By the top of the primary interval it’s 32–7, and Sheppard has 5 factors, six assists and three steals. He isn’t even in search of his personal shot. If each pinpoint move had been transformed by his teammates, Sheppard would have had double-figure dimes in a single, eight-minute quarter.
The ultimate rating is 87–46. The Jaguars are a symphony of recent hoops, shifting the ball rapidly in transition for open three-pointers or drives to the basket. Sheppard is the conductor, working most carefully along with his cousin and lifelong teammate, Ryan Davidson, exhibiting ambidexterity and court docket consciousness very uncommon for a highschool sophomore.
“I assumed he’s typical small-town Kentucky, shoots 30 instances a recreation to attain 40 factors,” says a Division I coach who has seen Sheppard play. “That’s not the case. The factor that separates him [is that] he makes each proper determination, he doesn’t drive and he could make each proper learn of the protection. And he actually finishes. He’s adequate to play there.”
By there he means Kentucky. And if he’s adequate to play at Kentucky, he’s adequate to play wherever.
Towards Whitley County, I had Sheppard’s closing line at 19 factors on simply 14 photographs, 9 rebounds, 14 assists, six steals. The college’s stat keeper really did the alternative of hometown typecast and deflated his numbers, crediting him with solely 5 rebounds and 11 assists. Seems he was the fill-in stat man; the lady sitting subsequent to him on the scorer’s desk was doing her finest to assist him preserve observe of all of the gamers.
That was Stacey Sheppard. Throughout the health club at midcourt, her mother, Lola, sits within the stands and retains her personal stats. A few rows behind her sits Jeff, elbow on knee and chin in hand, watching behind a masks that hides his feelings.
Jeff was a part of Kentucky’s biggest run for the reason that Fifties, profitable nationwide titles in 1996 beneath Rick Pitino and ’98 beneath Tubby Smith, with a redshirt yr in between when the Wildcats misplaced the title recreation in time beyond regulation to Arizona. He was a bouncy, burr-headed guard enjoying a job on loaded groups, however he turned the star of the ’98 title run—his 27 factors within the nationwide semifinal led Kentucky out of a double-digit gap to beat Stanford in time beyond regulation, then he added 16 in a comeback win over Utah within the championship recreation.
Religious and quietly intense, Sheppard fell in love in faculty with bubbly nation woman Stacey Reed, whose twangy accent makes very clear the place she’s from. She was the hyperactive engine of the ladies’s crew, palms and toes shifting on a regular basis, fast to smile however faster to steal the ball from an off-the-cuff opposing guard. After Jeff’s three-year skilled profession in Italy, the couple moved again to Stacey’s childhood stomping grounds in Laurel County.
London is 75 miles south of Lexington, the place Jeff works as a monetary advisor. It’s the house of the annual World Hen Pageant, honoring Laurel County native Col. Harland Sanders, whose first restaurant was simply down the highway in Corbin. (The pageant options what’s billed because the world’s largest skillet, which reportedly can fry 600 hen quarters directly.) And it’s house to the sprawling Reed clan.
“I’ve obtained a extremely huge household and most of them are right here,” Stacey says. “Jeff simply liked the camaraderie that we’ve with the massive household. So there wasn’t an entire lot of speaking to get him to remain right here. After we settled down, that is the place we wished to be.”
They’re neighbors with Stacey’s sister, which is how Davidson and Sheppard turned lifelong operating buddies. Ryan has a half-court hoop at his home and Reed has a full-court setup, and from a younger age they had been at one or the opposite taking pictures baskets. The usual fantasy drill: Down two with three seconds left, Sheppard passes to Davidson for the profitable shot.
In elementary college and center college, Jeff coached these two and their pals on membership groups—first the Sharks, then the Playmakers. They turned fairly good beneath Jeff’s demanding tutelage. “I used to be fairly laborious on ’em,” he says. “I coached ’em actually laborious and demanded that they learn to play accurately. The mother and father allowed me to actually get after their children and problem their children.”
Absolutely, the restrained Jeff Sheppard didn’t channel his previous coach, Pitino, did he?
“Fairly shut,” Stacey gives.
“It’s bizarre, form of like two completely different personalities,” Jeff admits. “Some mother and father had been like, ‘Is that Jeff on the market yelling like that?’ ”
When it comes to enjoying model, Jeff thinks his Reed performs extra like his mom than like him. They do share a point-guard mentality and excessive basketball IQ. However Stacey says she will be able to solely want she had his flooring imaginative and prescient and instincts.
“How he sees the court docket, he’s an entire ’nother creature,” she says. “A play forward, I may see it. However he’s on a distinct stage. He simply has a pure really feel for the sport, and he’s performed with these guys for therefore lengthy.”
The present North Laurel crew consists of half a dozen members of these previous youth-league outfits. Highschool basketball has by no means been extra transient—prep faculties, pop-up Christian faculties, transfers aplenty—however the Jaguars are a throwback, homegrown crew.
“You do that lengthy sufficient, you’re going to have children switch in or switch out,” Valentine says. “Up to now, jealousy hasn’t turn out to be an element for them or their mother and father—and generally the mother and father are the largest challenge. It’s refreshing to teach.”
Reed’s mother and father aren’t inclined to be those to interrupt up this merry band. In an period the place high-level prospects typically transfer round seeking high-profile applications constructed round collections of star gamers from all around the nation, they’re blissful watching their solely son play along with his grade college buddies.
“We do hear that,” Stacey says about probably shifting so Reed may play some place else. “However we really feel the publicity he will get by way of AAU, he’s going to get all he wants by way of that. It’s laborious to search out the close-knit relationships they’ve. The recollections and relationships and experiences they’ll create with one another, I don’t need to pull him away from that.
“I believe there’s lots to be mentioned once you’re dedicated to your hometown, a loyalty to the place you’re from. Individuals reply and react and comply with you, so it doesn’t simply final once you’re in highschool. The Londonites are going to be following them wherever they go.”
In fact, the place Reed goes after London already is the topic of intense native curiosity. It’s the story line that looms over every part he does, even whereas he’s simply making an attempt to take pleasure in a dream season along with his childhood buddies.
Let it’s identified that John Calipari has spoken by telephone with the Sheppards. He’s not alone; so have Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Louisville’s Chris Mack, Indiana’s Archie Miller and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, amongst others. However earlier than Huge Blue Nation will get too angsty about it, relaxation assured that Cal has at the least made an overture.
Solely 5 faculties have supplied scholarships thus far: Iowa, Stetson, South Alabama, Iona and Excessive Level. (The latter two are led by Sheppard’s former UK coaches, Pitino and Smith.) That quantity figures to escalate within the spring and summer season, when Sheppard fits up for an AAU crew from Cincinnati on the Adidas circuit and when recruiting opens up once more. Among the many high-major applications which have staffers following Sheppard on Twitter: Auburn, Tennessee, Xavier, Minnesota, Butler, Marquette, Purdue, Cincinnati, Miami, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Georgetown and Illinois.
Jeff made some feedback in 2013 which have Kentucky followers stewing a couple of potential rift with Cal. Talking at an occasion in Ohio, he mentioned, “I personally assume possibly there’s slightly bit an excessive amount of emphasis on celebrating first-round draft picks.” Sheppard additionally famous that he was extra snug on the time at Louisville than at Kentucky, since he performed for Pitino (then the coach of the Cardinals). However these had been transient feedback eight years in the past, and those that know the state of affairs say there isn’t any challenge between Cal and Sheppard.
If something, Jeff and Stacey wish to keep out of Reed’s faculty determination it doesn’t matter what it’s. They gained’t be pushing their alma mater on him. “I believe it’s necessary for Reed to know that though Jeff and I performed there and had a good time there, he’s completely different,” Stacey says. “He’s doing his personal factor. He is aware of that we don’t care the place he goes.”
If Calipari does prolong a suggestion, it will likely be welcomed. However it may not be accepted on the spot.
“It’s each child in Kentucky’s dream to play on the College of Kentucky,” Reed says. “However simply letting it play out and the place I really feel I’m most at house. God will put me the place He needs me to be, a spot the place I really feel at house and the folks really feel like household.”
The backdrop for this recruiting saga is the conflicted historical past of in-state stars and Kentucky—particularly an in-state star from the mountains. The Wildcats have been led to nationwide titles by a number of natives of the state, from Wallace (Wah Wah) Jones and Ralph Beard within the Forties to Jack Givens in 1978. Louisvillian Derek Anderson was a key contributor to the ’96 title crew, fellow Louisivillian Scott Padgett was a key cog on the ’98 crew and Darius Miller (a holdover Billy Gillispie recruit) stuffed a key position on Cal’s 2012 title crew. However there even have been loads of gamers who had been handed over (to the outrage of the followers) or who performed little after turning into Wildcats (which additionally produced outrage).
The last word lightning-rod recruit was mountain hero Richie Farmer, who led Clay County to the 1987 state championship. His movie star grew to the purpose that the highway outdoors his house within the coal-mining city of Manchester, Ky., was renamed “Richie Boulevard,” and his scoring duels with future NBA star Allan Houston of Louisville Ballard had been the stuff of legend. (Farmer scored 51 in a dropping effort in a championship rematch in ’88.)
There was practically a populist revolt when it appeared that Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton wouldn’t recruit him. The 5′ 11″ Farmer was a tweener guard—not sufficient of a distributor to play the purpose, and regarded too brief to play the 2. Sutton unenthusiastically had signed a pair of different natives from “out within the state” the yr earlier than, “Mr. Basketball” John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, however Farmer was the true folks’s alternative recruit.
Lastly, after a recruiting go to from LSU’s Dale Brown upped the ante, Sutton supplied Farmer a scholarship. “Sutton made it look like it was a burden,” says Rick Bozich of WDRB in Louisville, who has lined basketball in Kentucky for greater than 40 years. “In a world with no critics, I don’t assume he would have taken Richie.”
Bozich, and others, assume Calipari is much less prone to hearken to what the followers need: “I don’t assume that’s even on his listing of issues to think about.” He’s proven solely average curiosity in recruiting gamers from the state, and even fewer of these he has signed turned starters. There was fury earlier this season when Cal buried shooter Dontaie Allen of Falmouth on the bench as his crew was beginning 1–6 and lacking every part from the perimeter. The fury has dissipated as Allen struggled, however resentment stays.
As this disastrous dropping season has unfolded at Kentucky, the followers have elevated the quantity of their discontent with Calipari’s program-building philosophy. A one-and-done revolving door was by no means a super assemble for a lot of followers of this system that after had probably the most particular Senior Day ceremonies within the nation. However the followers made a Faustian cut price: We’ll take it so long as we’re profitable huge.
They’re not profitable huge, although. Or, this season, even profitable greater than they lose. As one longtime program observer put it, “The followers like one-and-done once they’re going to the Remaining 4. It’s been some time.”
For some time it appeared that the NBA was poised to disrupt the one-and-done equipment by decreasing its necessary age restrict for entry into the draft. That will have allowed highschool gamers extra direct entry to the NBA, which might drive a change to the way in which Calipari and others (notably Mike Krzyzewski) have approached recruiting. However there may be far much less discuss that now, particularly for the reason that G League has developed another feeder system.
So the chance for one-and-done team-building should exist for fairly some time. That will not thrill Kentucky followers, who’ve seen 28 gamers up to now 11 seasons depart after one yr on campus (25 had been first-round picks). “There’s one-and-done fatigue,” says the Herald-Chief’s Clay. “The grumbling has elevated yearly.”
Can Reed Sheppard—a legacy recruit, a homegrown expertise, a mountain boy and a participant who appears at Kentucky as one thing greater than only a nine-month cease on the way in which to the professionals—drive a change in Calipari’s strategy?
“It ought to change the dynamic,” Bozich says. “The proportion of Kentucky followers who need Reed Sheppard to play for Kentucky must be near 100. I believe persons are hungry for an in-state man. It must be tiresome yearly to be taught the names and put money into their backstories, and by the point you realize who they’re, they’re gone. I assume I imagine in fairy tales, however the guys who’re there three or 4 years are extra invested in this system. They keep round and so they come again once they’re executed enjoying—even out-of-state guys like Kenny Walker and Mike Pratt. They care about Kentucky basketball.”
The 16-year-old level guard for the North Laurel Jaguars is definitely conscious of every part swirling round him however blissfully insulated from a lot of it. Valentine suggested him to show off the social-media notifications on his telephone. His mother and father preserve him grounded. “He had a triple double the opposite night time and his mother was throughout him for not enjoying protection,” Valentine says.
After blowing out Whitley County, Sheppard left the health club along with his cousin and different teammates, an undefeated crew in a small city on a Friday night time. Youngsters with out worries, having the time of their younger lives. His mother and father lingered within the all of a sudden quiet health club, answering questions concerning the future however making an attempt to carry onto this valuable current.
“Tonight, he will get to play a ball recreation and go have dinner along with his buddies,” Jeff mentioned. “Faculty has its personal ups and downs, however with the ability to take pleasure in each single minute of highschool is necessary.”
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