When can Shaedon Sharpe play? Kentucky coaches offer another update on the star recruit.

Alex Slitz/aslitz@herald-leader.com
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As Shaedon Sharpe Watch continues around the Kentucky basketball program, the star recruit was a topic of conversation yet again Monday on the eve of the Wildcats’ game against Mississippi State.

UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua talked Monday afternoon about some of the risks of playing Sharpe too early. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard just arrived on campus earlier this month and is still getting acclimated to the team and a new level of basketball.

“You’ve got to understand the pace of the game,” Antigua said. “You’ve got to understand assignments, the defensive schemes, the timing on offense, the other four players who would be on the court … what kind of synergy that means. That takes time to build.

“When you’re this far along in a season, it’s really hard to try to throw somebody into it if they’re not ready for it. We not only put a kid in position to maybe do harm to himself, but also to our team, if it’s not the right timing.”

Kentucky is 15-4 on the season and No. 12 in the new Associated Press rankings following a week in which the Wildcats defeated Texas A&M on the road and lost at now-No. 1 Auburn, a game UK was in position to win late despite losing star guard TyTy Washington to injury midway through the first half.

Antigua did not have an update Monday on Washington, who suffered a left ankle injury, or fellow starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who left late in the Auburn game after a couple of violent collisions with Tigers center Walker Kessler in the second half. It’s not expected that either player will be out for an extended period of time — and both players could return Tuesday night against Mississippi State — but any holes in the backcourt will only increase the clamor among some Kentucky fans that Sharpe should play right away.

John Calipari said on his radio show Monday night that he didn’t think Sharpe was ready to play yet by the Auburn game, though he added that the newcomer has “stepped on the gas a little bit” over the past couple of days.

“I think our team would like me to put him in,” the UK coach said Monday. “We’re doing stuff, and something happens in practice — he does something — and they all kind of look at me like, ‘C’mon, now. That’s who he is? Put him in.’ But you got to make sure you’re looking after him.”

Asked on his radio show Monday for more details on what’s involved with getting Sharpe in a better position to play — if he is indeed needed this season — Calipari said he wanted to get him more time in Kentucky’s practices.

“You just got to get a lot of reps in,” Calipari said. “So I’m trying to get him more reps, and we did stuff today. If he plays, you’ve got to say, ‘We’re only doing these two or three things.’ He’s only been here a couple of weeks. You throw him in the game, say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go five up, side angle ...’ What? You better do some really simple stuff and let him do what he does.

“What does he do? He scores the ball. So you say, ‘Look, you won’t believe this. When you get in, score the ball.’ And that’s if we choose to play him. I’m not sure yet what we’ll do.”

Calipari did not offer any definitive updates on the status of Wheeler or Washington for Tuesday night, though he did say Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz both got time at point guard in Monday’s practice.

Sharpe was the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class before deciding to enroll at UK at the semester break and join the Wildcats for this season. Originally, the plan was for him to be a practice player to finish out this season and make his playing debut at Kentucky in the 2022-23 campaign, though speculation has been rampant that he could play this season.

Antigua implied that’s easier said than done at this stage in his development.

“He’s coming along, but he’s only been with us two weeks,” the UK assistant said Monday. “It’s hard to expect him to be caught up when guys have been going and practicing and working since the summer. But he’s doing great. He’s a quick learner. … He’s working really hard.

“There’s a lot going on when a kid gets to campus midseason. He’s getting acclimated to classes, class schedule, the dorm life, conditioning. One of the things he’s been surprised by is how much information and how much detail everything is. So he’s getting acclimated, but it takes time.”

Last week, ESPN reported that Sharpe could be eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft, perhaps shaking up his timeline. It was originally thought that the league’s eligibility rules would keep Sharpe in college until the 2023 draft, and the ESPN report led to rumblings that the star recruit could leave Lexington after this season, perhaps without playing a single college game.

Calipari said Friday that the report did not change his outlook on Sharpe’s UK career. “He plans on being here next year,” the UK coach said, adding then that he was still unsure if he would play this season.

Sharpe’s mentor and former AAU coach, Dwayne Washington, told the Herald-Leader later Friday that Sharpe’s NBA Draft status had been known to him and his family for months, and the ESPN report did nothing to change their vision of his basketball future.

Washington said Sharpe intends to play for Kentucky next season. The only scenario offered Friday by Washington in which he would leave after this season is if Sharpe played for the Cats and excelled from an individual and team perspective.

“Now if Cal puts him in in two weeks and he’s scoring 20 points a game, and they get to the Final Four — of course he’s gone,” he said. “But if he doesn’t, they got him for next year.”

Antigua said Kentucky won’t rush Sharpe to the court before he’s ready, for any reason.

“Cal has always (been) conscious, aware and alert on what’s best for our kids,” he said. “And don’t think that will change, even with Shaedon.”

UK junior forward Jacob Toppin said Monday afternoon that Sharpe has been around the team, but he had yet to go through a full “five-on-five” practice with his teammates.

“It’s been difficult, but he’s coming along,” Toppin said of Sharpe’s development. “But he’s getting there. He’s learning the plays. He’s definitely coming along very well, and we’ll go from there. See what happens.”

Toppin was also asked if he thinks Sharpe wants to play this season.

“He’s young. I think he’s taking it day by day,” he said. “I think he’s just concerned about getting better every day. I see him in the gym all the time. He’s working hard. Right now, I think he’s just going with the flow of things. When his time comes, his time comes. I don’t think he’s really worried about anything else but getting better every day.”

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