NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Kentucky

Reed Sheppard, one of the best freshmen in Kentucky history, is declaring for the NBA Draft after a standout debut season with the Wildcats, he told CBS Sports on Thursday. Sheppard is forgoing any return to college and is fully committed to his next chapter in the NBA. He's signed with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) for professional representation and has begun his training in Los Angeles in the lead-up to the draft on June 26.

"I just love the game of basketball," Sheppard told CBS Sports. "God has given me a gift to play ball. I'm thankful. Just trying to keep working and learning to get ready for the NBA."

Sheppard is a projected lottery selection and has received top-five-pick buzz dating back to late February. 

His college career is over after a surprisingly outstanding one-and-done year under John Calipari. Sheppard was the lowest-ranked prospect (but still a four-star recruit) in Kentucky's No. 1 2023 class. Entering last season, the expectation was that Sheppard would steadily grow into a three- or four-year player at the same school where his mother Stacey and father Jeff once starred. 

Instead, he became a revelation

"Kentucky is a special place. College basketball is a special place. The decision was bittersweet for sure," Sheppard told CBS Sports. "I love Coach Cal. I love Kentucky." 

Though he was ranked as the No. 79 player in the 2023 class by 247Sports, Sheppard quickly emerged as a two-way superstar. He averaged 12.5. points, 4.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.5 steals while playing 28.9 minutes — doing so coming off the bench. At 6-foot-3, Sheppard earned Freshman of the Year honors from CBS Sports, the United States Basketball Writers Association and other outlets. He also took home the SEC Rookie of the Year award.

He is the ultra-rare player to earn national accolades and awards despite not being a full-time starter. Sheppard started just five of his 33 games as a Wildcat. 

In addition to shooting a scorching 52.1% from 3-point range on 4.4 attempts per game, Sheppard proved his value by consistently making the right play on a Kentucky team that was better from 3 than any team ever before under Calipari. A couple of Sheppard's biggest performances came on the road against high-level defenses; Sheppard poured in 32 points at Mississippi State and 27 at Tennessee in late-season victories for the Wildcats.

It wasn't all rosy, of course. A Kentucky team stacked with talent finished 23-10 and ended its season with a thud, falling to Oakland in the NCAA Tournament's first round. That eventually triggered Calipari's exit from the program; he's now at Arkansas. But Sheppard was a consistent bright spot on this team, as CBS Sports featured earlier this season.

Reed Sheppard's NBA Draft projection

Some general managers may balk at spending a top-five or -10 pick on a player with limited size and average physical tools for the NBA. Skeptics could also use his lackluster performance in Kentucky's first-round NCAA Tournament loss to No. 14 seed Oakland to bolster their arguments against Sheppard as an early selection. In UK's loss to the Golden Grizzlies on March 21, he had just three points in 26 minutes alongside four assists, three fouls, two steals and two turnovers. 

But sources said some teams picking in the top 10 have already showed genuine interest in Sheppard's upside. Plus, dismissing him based on his play in one NCAA Tournament game would be ignoring an overwhelmingly impressive body of work at college basketball's highest level.

In an era when age and experience rule the day in college basketball, Sheppard made a massive positive impact on both ends of the floor for the Wildcats as a 19-year-old. Consider: Tyrese Maxey, Jalen Brunson, Derrick White and Fred VanVleet are examples of high-level NBA players who are all 6-4 or shorter. None were selected in the top 20 of their respective drafts but would be taken much higher if franchises could go back in time.

Sheppard was pegged at No. 4 in a mock draft from CBS Sports NBA Draft expert Kyle Boone prior to the NCAA Tournament. He ranks No. 5 overall in CBS' 2024 NBA Draft Prospect Rankings.

"However good you think Sheppard is, just know you're probably wrong and underrating him," Boone wrote. "He's having an historically great freshman season at Kentucky as arguably the best shooter in college basketball, and he's a defensive playmaker with the smarts to be a two-way star."

His precise window to be picked is a moving target two months out, but all indications at this stage have him as a lock lottery selection. 

Impact on Kentucky

Kentucky would typically harbor no hope of getting a projected lottery pick back, especially under these circumstances (with Calipari leaving for the Arkansas job). But there was briefly a hint of optimism that Sheppard could be an exception given new coach Mark Pope's longstanding friendship with former teammate Jeff Sheppard (Reed's father). As an in-state prospect and the son of two former Kentucky stars, Sheppard entered UK with the expectation of being a three- or four-year standout in Lexington. 

Instead, what transpired was a Bluegrass State folk tale. 

"Truly a dream come true," Sheppard told CBS Sports. "Just a few years ago, I was the kid that I'm now taking photos with. Wearing the Kentucky jersey is just special. Representing the people of Kentucky was an honor." 

He quickly emerged onto the radar of scouts with a surprisingly effective all-around game in one of college basketball's toughest conferences, the SEC. His stats and efficiency were too impressive to pass on his accelerated NBA timeline. In building out a family lineage at UK, Sheppard put his name alongside the likes of John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns as one of the best one-year players in school history.  

Had Sheppard returned for a sophomore season, millions of dollars in NIL endorsements awaited him. But in going to the NBA, millions more are coming with his first contract. 

Despite the temptation to return to Kentucky and become one of the faces of the sport, Sheppard's stock is too high right now — particularly in a relatively weak 2024 draft class — to come back. Under Pope, the Wildcats will be a new team in a new era. Sheppard represents the final phase of Kentucky under Calipari. His one-year legacy will be immense there but also comes with a what-if feeling over not getting to see him grow in a UK uniform over multiple years. Nevertheless, the Sheppard name will remain beloved in his home state forever.