We asked recruiting analysts to assess Reed Sheppard’s summer. Here’s what they said.

Already viewed as a major basketball star inside the state, Kentucky native Reed Sheppard seemed to be one of the top curiosities on the national recruiting radar going into this summer.

One major hang-up for recruiting analysts outside the state: most had never seen him play in person. Another: those who did have the opportunity to watch Sheppard wanted to see what he could do against top national competition, a level of talent beyond what he was normally facing at the high school level.

Sheppard’s backstory — a budding star from hoops-crazy Kentucky and the son of two UK basketball greats — made him one of the summer’s top draws for recruiting analysts, who didn’t get to see him play last year after the 2020 grassroots season was wiped out due to COVID-19.

The 6-foot-3 guard from North Laurel High School didn’t disappoint.

Sheppard led his Cincinnati-based Midwest Basketball Club to a nearly undefeated summer on the top level of the Adidas circuit, advancing all the way to the league’s national semifinals. He often looked like the best player on the court.

The scholarship offers he racked up along the way — Kentucky, Louisville, Indiana, Virginia, to name a few — were well-documented, and Sheppard came out of the summer nationally ranked by all of the major recruiting services, even achieving five-star status.

The Herald-Leader asked several national analysts t reflect on Sheppard’s summer play over the past couple of weeks, and it’s clear that the Kentucky high school star left an impression as a top prospect with a bright future.

Reed Sheppard’s strengths

Coming into the summer, 247Sports analyst Travis Branham was one of the few national talent evaluators that had seen Sheppard play in person. He was impressed by that first viewing — a North Laurel victory over Madison Central late in the season — but he wanted to see how Sheppard fared against tougher competition.

“He’s one of those kids that impresses me every time I see him. Just a very mature player,” Branham told the Herald-Leader following his summer evaluations. “He always makes the right basketball play. He has an extremely high floor as a basketball player — he’s very well-rounded. He’s a very good shooter from three, off the catch and bounce. He’s a great passer. He makes really good decisions with the basketball. He rebounds well for the position. He competes. Every time I’ve seen him this summer, I’ve come away more impressed.”

Branham noted that Sheppard was playing up a grade level — most of the top players he faced on the Adidas circuit this summer were class of 2022 prospects.

“And while he was younger, most of the time he was the most mature, smart player on the court,” he said. “Very few people have that IQ and feel for the game and well-rounded skill set that he possesses. And he always brought it. He always produced.”

Rivals.com national analyst Rob Cassidy was getting to see Sheppard for the first time this summer, and he was in Alabama for the first leg of Adidas league play in July, when the 17-year-old played in front of John Calipari for the first time and earned a UK scholarship offer the next day.

In the post-summer rankings update, Rivals.com moved Sheppard up to No. 21 nationally, putting five stars next to his name.

“We like him a lot, obviously,” Cassidy said. “His versatility is really interesting, because you can play him at either guard spot. I think you’d rather play him off the ball, just because he can shoot the ball so well. I mean, he really fills it up. If you leave him open, it’s almost automatic. So I’d like to have him at the ‘2’, but he handles the ball well enough and he makes good enough decisions with the basketball to play the point, too. And I think that’s kind of rare. A lot of guards say they’re combo guards. He’s truly a combo guard.”

Cassidy was perhaps most impressed by Sheppard’s hard-playing style. Indeed, the Kentucky standout seemingly never stops moving on the court, and that approach — coupled with athleticism and instincts — allows him to often be in the right spot at the right time to make key plays.

“He’s got an absolutely incredible motor,” Cassidy said. “It’s almost like he doesn’t ever get tired. He’s the first one back (on defense), constantly. He’s not taking plays off.”

Pro Insight founder Matt McKay said it was “truly enjoyable” to watch the Midwest Basketball Club, which rode an efficient, unselfish style to victories in its first nine games in Adidas league play before getting bounced from the championships in the national semifinals (losing only to eventual Adidas champ Dream Vision). Sheppard led the way for the Midwest squad.

“He and his teammates play an unselfish brand of basketball that’s innately endearing,” McKay said. “Sheppard is a hard-nosed, tough-minded, high-motor combo guard, comfortable making plays on the ball or keeping the defense honest while playing off the ball. His advanced feel for the game is evident as he’s a fairly high usage player, yet a very low mistake guy.

“Another big strength that stands out with Sheppard is how he’s constantly on balance — he does a terrific job playing off of two feet.”

Branham’s 247Sports colleague, Brandon Jenkins, came away impressed by Sheppard’s unshakable approach under challenging circumstances. Not only was he playing on the national stage for the first time, he was doing so in front of a gym full of major college coaches, who hadn’t previously been able to watch Sheppard due to COVID-related NCAA restrictions. By the time he got the UK offer, opposing players were clearly amped up to challenge him on the court.

“And he shined bright under the lights,” Jenkins said. “And he was very productive. But the thing that doesn’t get spoken about as much is that he was playing up on 17U as the best player on that 17U team, and he had to be the best player on that 17U team in front of John Calipari. And I just think that speaks volumes to the type of kid that he is, what he’s made out of — the toughness, the moxie. And coupled with his savvy and skill, you’ve got a tremendous college basketball player in the making.”

How Sheppard can improve

Asked to evaluate how Sheppard can get better moving forward, the recruiting analysts were far more brief.

Sheppard has two more seasons of high school ball — and one more summer on the grassroots circuit — before he begins his college career. Obviously, any player at that stage of development still has a lot to work on, but — in Sheppard’s case — it sounds like it’s more about honing existing skills than adding new wrinkles to his game.

“There wasn’t really any significant weakness,” Jenkins said, a sentiment echoed by his fellow evaluators.

He did say he hoped to see Sheppard stay engaged defensively, never let up on that end of the court, where his opponents will get better, bigger, faster and harder to defend as time goes on.

“Never having a quiet moment. Never giving anybody any reason to doubt that you are what they say you are. That’s the biggest deal,” Jenkins said.

Branham also pointed to the defensive end as an area where Sheppard can expand his game over the next couple of years, specifically mentioning continued improvement in his lateral quickness, which would obviously help him progress as a defender both on and off the ball.

“And then, on top of that, just expanding his offensive skill set as a playmaker,” Branham said. “Learning to create more off the bounce. Learning to operate in the pick and roll — I think those are the areas (for improvement). Because he’s so well-rounded already and does everything well. And so, I think, to expand his game … to take this to the next level it’s, ‘Let’s add more to the scoring package. Let’s learn the reads and the ball-screen situations.’

“Because I think he’s ready for that, given his current skill set. To learn the next level of reads and all those things that most high school players aren’t learning at this same stage.”

Looking even further into Sheppard’s future — a possible pro career — those will be important points. He doesn’t quite have the profile of an NBA “2” guard, so it will be important for him to hone those on-the-ball, playmaking skills at an even higher level.

And as good of a shooter as he already is — 88.0 percent on free throws and 40.9 percent on threes as a high school sophomore — that’s an area where any added improvement will be a bonus, both for the college level and his professional prospects.

While he can certainly get hot from deep and has an impressive and consistent stroke, he did have a few off shooting games, despite getting open looks, on the Adidas circuit.

“He’s trending toward becoming an impressively complete backcourt player,” McKay said. “Everyone has room for improvement, and he’s not an exception to that rule. To pinpoint one thing — though he’s currently sufficient in this category — over the next two years I’d like to see Reed go from being a good shooter to a great shooter.”

What’s next for Reed Sheppard?

The post-summer rankings shuffle has brought added national attention for Sheppard, who rose 18 spots to the No. 21 position on Rivals.com’s list and went from unranked to No. 37 nationally in ESPN’s ratings.

247Sports was the first national service to include Sheppard in its 2023 rankings, and though they have not updated that list since the spring — leaving the Kentucky star at No. 62 overall, for now — Branham told the Herald-Leader that Sheppard would be due for a rankings bump, and 247Sports national analyst Eric Bossi wrote last week that he has a strong case for a move inside the national top 25.

Amid the national rise, Sheppard has remained quiet about his own recruitment. He has not publicized the few campus visits he has made so far, and — other than posting on social media when he receives a new scholarship offer — Sheppard rarely says much about recruiting.

The fall recruiting period began Thursday, but college coaches are not allowed to have in-home visits with recruits until their senior year of high school, so all off-campus meetings with Sheppard will take place at North Laurel High School for the time being.

Sheppard’s father, Jeff Sheppard, told the Herald-Leader on Monday afternoon that Louisville was in to see his son last week, adding that coaches from Kentucky, Ohio State and Virginia are working on dates to visit with him in person in the near future. He also said the family was planning on visiting all four of those schools soon. His only campus visit so far since the end of the July evaluation periods was a trip to Indiana last month.

Coming out of the summer, Kentucky is viewed nationally as the heavy favorite to land Sheppard’s commitment, thanks in large part to the fact that his parents — Jeff Sheppard and Stacey Reed Sheppard — were star players for the Wildcats in the 1990s.

UK has all eight predictions on Sheppard’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page, though there is no timeframe for a commitment and Sheppard and his family have consistently said that they’re open in the process and looking forward to seeing other schools and hearing from other coaches.

Any questions regarding Sheppard’s ability to play at UK were answered this summer.

Asked how he might fit in the Wildcats’ program, Jenkins said UK fans might want to watch how Calipari utilizes his off-ball guards, namely incoming transfers Kellan Grady and CJ Fredrick, this season.

“If he develops at the rate that everybody thinks he will, he can kind of be a cross between both of them,” he said. “He is smart enough to play on ball. His foot speed isn’t the usual type of foot speed that most on-ball guards at Kentucky have. But he’s savvy enough to make up for it. And then focusing on his ability to shoot the basketball and how that translates within his offense. I think he would be able to play that cross-between role.”

Cassidy thinks Sheppard would fit well at UK, and — while he too envisions more of an off-the-ball role if the local star does indeed pick the Wildcats — the versatility would be there to bolster future Kentucky rosters. He pointed to last season’s roster, which spent much of its disappointing 9-16 season searching for a capable point guard to run the team.

“The good thing about Reed Sheppard is if you bring him in as a ‘2’ and then you get in a situation like that again — where, ‘Oh, crap, we don’t have a point guard — he’s a great emergency point guard to have,” Cassidy said. “You can slide him over, and he fixes that problem.”

Branham acknowledged that it’s difficult to say with much certainty just how Sheppard would fit in a Kentucky lineup. He won’t get to college until the 2023-24 season, and no one knows what the UK roster will look like at that time.

“But as a player, he’s a guy who can function on and off the ball with his decision-making and scoring abilities,” he said. “He’s a really good shooter off the ball, but he can also score on it and playmake on it. Wherever he goes, he’s definitely going to be an impact player as a combo guard.”

Sheppard and North Laurel are scheduled to begin the 2021-22 high school season Nov. 29 with a home game against Red Bird. The ultimate goal, of course, will be a 13th Region championship and a trip to Rupp Arena for the Sweet Sixteen in March, an honor the team fell one victory short of last season.

Expect plenty of college coaches, recruiting analysts and scouts to be paying close attention once the season begins, along for the ride in the next chapter of Sheppard’s basketball career.

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