Reed Sheppard had a choice between his family’s past and his own future and he made the right one

As the John Calipari era came to a painful end, Reed Sheppard was Kentucky's connective thread to the good old days and once Mark Pope was hired, to the program's future. Yet, he's off to the NBA, another one of Coach Cal's one-and-done success stories.
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari / Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Nostalgia sells, that longstanding fact of life was personified for Mark Pope’s introductory press conference at Rupp Arena. Big Blue Nation packed the venue to celebrate the return of the 1996 National Championship team and Pope, that team’s captain and this upcoming team’s head coach, the past and the present simultaneously on full display. 

Two years after ‘96, the Wildcats won the title again and Pope’s roommate, Jeff Sheppard was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. 25 years after that, Kentucky basketball fell in love with Jeff’s son Reed. 

Reed Sheppard had an outstanding freshman season, distinguishing himself as the best amongst a loaded class of highly-touted freshmen. The 6-foot-3 guard only averaged 12.5 points but shot over 50% from three, while dishing out 4.1 assists, grabbing 4.5 rebounds, and 2.5 steals a game. 

His talent, athleticism, and veteran-like savvy jumped off the screen from the very first game of the season. Yet, his remarkable year ended with a 1-5, three-point performance in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a loss to No. 14 seed Oakland. 

If he returned to school, he’d be arguably the best player in college basketball next season, with his Dad’s former roommate ushering in a new era of Kentucky basketball and washing away the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth from 2023-24. It would have been the storybook ending for Pope and Sheppard to lead Kentucky to national title No. 9, and some Kentucky fans fell for the fairy tale. 

Instead, inevitably, on Thursday afternoon, Sheppard announced that he was declaring for the 2024 NBA Draft and forgoing the remainder of his collegiate career. As much as it may hurt Kentucky fans and had to hurt the Sheppard family, it was inarguably the right decision. 

The 2023 NBA Draft was a generational one that had 7-foot-5 Victor Wembanyama looming as the ultimate prize. The 2024 Draft doesn’t have quite the same jackpot. It was a down year for college freshmen, though plenty, like Sheppard and teammate Rob Dillingham, emerged throughout the year, and the overseas class isn’t quite as strong either. 

At times throughout the year, Sheppard was even considered an option at No. 1 overall and could reestablish himself throughout the draft cycle. Sheppard would be a quality prospect in any draft, but with the lack of high-end talent at the top, this is by far his best opportunity to be selected in the Top 10 and secure his NBA future. 

There is money to be made in the collegiate game now, but the earning window for athletes closes quickly and the guaranteed contracts of first-round NBA draft picks are too enticing to pass up. Sheppard would not be a lottery pick in every draft, but he is in this one, so he had to go. 

Sure, Reed could have returned to try and cement himself as a legend in Lexington, to honor his family’s past, and play for his father’s former teammate, but the risk doesn’t outweigh the reward. It was an unfortunate ending, but Sheppard an incredibly fun season that in time will be remembered fondly. 

Jeff Sheppard is a Kentucky legend, his son now never will be, but Jeff Sheppard played just 18 games in the NBA, his son will likely eclipse that mark by next December. Nostalgia sells, but it can also be the enemy of progress. Reed Sheppard made the right decision to head for the NBA, ironically, as John Calipari’s last great one-and-done at Kentucky.

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