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Pros and cons of Reed Sheppard returning to Kentucky: Should Wildcats freshman play for Mark Pope in 2024-25?

A new era in Kentucky basketball is on the horizon after longtime coach John Calipari stepped away from the program to take the job at Arkansas. Just days after Calipari’s stunning exit, UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart zeroed in on BYU coach Mark Pope to succeed him. 

Pope has deep ties to the Bluegrass State dating back to his time as a player from 1994-96. Pope was teammates and roommates with Jeff Sheppard, the father of current Kentucky star Reed Sheppard. The younger Sheppard has yet to decide whether to declare for the 2024 NBA Draft or return to Kentucky for his sophomore season. 

“It’s a good question,” Jeff Sheppard told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Friday. “You know, Mark has been a friend for a long time. I don’t know. Last night was a late night, and I haven’t really gotten to talk to Reed much about that. He’s trying to go through a process of gathering information to really see truly where he is. There’s obviously all kinds of talk.”

Sheppard ranks as the No. 5 prospect on CBS Sports’ NBA Draft prospect rankings. Sheppard was named CBS Sports Freshman of the Year after averaging 12.5 points, 4.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.5 steals.

Here are a few pros and cons of Sheppard returning to Kentucky for another season.

Pro: Strong connection with Pope

It’s no secret that the Sheppard family has deep ties to the new Kentucky coach. The older Sheppard and Pope were key members of Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team and have stayed in touch. In an interview with BBN Tonight on Friday, the older Sheppard joked that his son’s first in-home visit came from Pope over a decade ago.

“Mark Pope has known Reed Sheppard since Reed was a little bitty fella,” Sheppard said in the interview. “When Mark was an assistant coach at Georgia, long time ago when Reed was six, seven years old? Pope boasts that he was the first coach to do an in-house visit for Reed at seven years old and holds that on his resumé.”

That connection could be a key factor in Sheppard’s pending decision.

Con: His draft stock is already high

The saying “take the money or leave it” could be applied here. If Sheppard declares for the draft, he’s almost guaranteed to be at least a lottery pick. In CBS Sports’ latest mock drafts, Kyle Boone and David Cobb have Sheppard going No. 4, and Gary Parrish has him going No. 2. Sheppard has worked his way up from a four-star recruit ranked No. 79 in the 2023 recruiting cycle by 247Sports to one of the most intriguing draft prospects in his class. Sheppard’s draft stock has soared over the last five months, and it could rise even more depending on how he tests at the NBA Combine next month. Sheppard was one of the most efficient players in college basketball last season. He should be able to find a role from Day 1 on whatever team drafts him for that reason.

Pro: Sheppard would start from Day 1

Despite logging 28.9 minutes per game, Sheppard made only five starts in 33 games. Sheppard played behind a starting backcourt of Antonio Reeves and D.J. Wagner and came off the bench alongside fellow freshman Rob Dillingham. With Reeves out of eligibility and Dillingham heading to the NBA, Sheppard would have a strong chance of sliding into the starting lineup. With an increased role in his second season, Sheppard could soar up draft boards. Another reason for a potential return could stem from Name, Image, and Likeness. Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones reported that two UK donors pledged at least $4 million into the program to help Pope build the roster.

Con: 2025 NBA Draft class is stacked

The 2024 NBA Draft is considered one of the weaker draft classes at the top in quite some time. While Sheppard projects a surefire top-10 pick this summer, there’s no guarantee he would hold that spot if he returns for another season. Sheppard will likely increase his overall stock by returning to school, but the 2025 NBA Draft is shaping up to be much stronger at the top. That could ultimately result in Sheppard getting pushed back in the pecking order even if he puts up better numbers in Year 2. The headliner of that future draft class is Duke signee Cooper Flagg – the projected No. 1 overall pick. Other players projected to go in the lottery include Duke signee Khaman Maluach, Rutgers signees Ace Bailey and Dylan Harper, Baylor signee V.J. Edgecombe, and Texas signee Tre Johnson.

Pro: Sheppard can become a UK legend by staying

Sheppard grew up in London, Kentucky, less than an hour from the Lexington campus. His father helped bring home Kentucky’s sixth national title, and his mom, Stacey, was a star for the Kentucky women’s basketball team in the 1990s. If any lottery-projected pick from this class is returning to school for another season, it’s Sheppard – and it’s because of the deep ties he has with the school. While it’s likely that Sheppard declares and forgoes his remaining eligibility, there are too many connections to the school to overlook this as a possibility.

If he returns for his sophomore season, he will have a chance to add to the legacy his parents started at the school nearly three decades ago.

Con: Longer timeline to get second NBA contract 

Sticking to the theme of money and the draft, Sheppard leaving school this season would speed up the process of getting a second and more lucrative contract. When players enter the NBA from the draft, they receive a four-year rookie-scale contract. The second contract is the goal of any player because it (for the most part) can result in further generational wealth. Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton – a lottery pick from the 2020 NBA Draft – signed a five-year deal with up to $260 million last summer. Players from the 2024 class will be extension-eligible starting in the summer of 2027. If Sheppard returns to school, that process gets delayed for at least one more year.

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