Portland Trail Blazers rookie Shaedon Sharpe noticed the group of about 10 reporters waiting by his locker at the Moda Center following his starting debut against Houston.
Sharpe showered, returned and saw that they were still there. Waiting patiently.
Early in his NBA career, Sharpe hasn’t cared much for interviews. He is personable, but not very talkative. Sometimes his answer can be shorter than the question. But he’d better get used to the attention if he is going to continue to make plays like he did during the Blazers’ 125-111 win over the Rockets on Friday night.
Sharpe, 19, scored 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Four points came on back-to-back, highlight-reel dunks. On the first, he took a pass from Jerami Grant on the right side of the key, took one step into the lane, leaped, cocked the ball back high behind his head and threw it down with power. Seconds later, after a Houston turnover, Keon Johnson tracked down the ball near the Blazers’ basket and flipped it back to a racing Sharpe for an alley-oop dunk.
The crowd of 19,082 went wild, as well as Blazers coach Chauncey Billups and the rest of the Blazers’ bench who collectively rose to their feet following both dunks.
“He’s just must-see TV,” Billups said. “You never know what he’s going to do when he gets that runway like that.”
Despite the pandemonium Sharpe created during the game, he didn’t treat the moment as anything special. He’s just a teenager doing what he does. Playing basketball. He barely expressed any emotion when talking about his back-to-back dunks, although he offered an evaluation.
“I feel like the first one was way better than the second one, but I don’t really grade them,” Sharpe said.
Brace yourselves, Portland fans, because such exploits could become the norm. And not just the dunking. Sharpe has already shown in six games that he can do many things well. And that’s why Billups decided to start Sharpe in place of Damian Lillard, out with a grade 1 calf sprain he suffered during Wednesday’s loss to Miami.
Anfernee Simons moved from shooting guard to replace Lillard at point guard and Sharpe took his spot in the backcourt.
Billups could have gone in a different direction by starting Justise Winslow or Nassir Little at small forward and moving Josh Hart to shooting guard. But Billups elected instead to go with the rookie, who could one day become a face of the franchise. He must develop for that to happen, and before the game, Billups said the best way to grow Sharpe as a player was to play him.
Through the first five games, Sharpe averaged 16 minutes per contest. He played 29 on Friday.
Billups told Sharpe that he would start during the team’s morning shootaround at the Tualatin practice facility. Sharpe said the news didn’t faze him.
During the game, however, Sharpe said he felt anxious and nervous, just as he did during his first preseason game on Oct. 3 in Seattle against the LA Clippers, and when he first appeared in a regular-season game on Oct. 19 at Sacramento. And just like with those moments, the nerves subsided once the action began.
“Once tip ball happens, I just started relaxing and playing the game I know how to play,” he said.
Billups greatly appreciates Sharpe’s demeanor. Sure, Sharpe is still learning and he makes mistakes. But he appears unflappable.
“He’s not scared of the moment,” Billups said. “He’s not scared to take a shot. He’s not scared to attack the rim. He’s not scared to stick his nose in there and play D and block a shot. That, to me is where he’s been a little different as opposed to other 19-year-olds that I’ve seen.”
Billups said he vowed to never be the type of coach who shied away from playing rookies. But he also won’t force a rookie into action he isn’t prepared for.
“I’m not going to jeopardize the team,” Billups said.
Sharpe didn’t play last season at Kentucky. But it became apparent early in training camp, Billups said, that the No. 7 pick in June’s draft could contribute right away. A couple of blocked shots against starters and a scrimmage-tying step-back jumper were camp highlights Billups noted.
What also stood out to Billups was that Sharpe didn’t take things too seriously but rather played with enthusiasm while letting the game come to him.
“I love that he just understands that it’s just a basketball game,” Billups said. “So many people overthink this thing. Just like it was a basketball game a year and a half ago in an AAU tournament somewhere, it’s still a basketball game now. He’s just learning different things and playing against better guys, but it’s still just basketball.”
Certain nuances of the NBA game still perplex Sharpe, especially on defense. According to Billups, Sharpe is a good on-ball defender, but at times he can get mixed up with his coverages and while switching.
“Everything happens so fast in the league,” he said.
It’s an area he is working hard to fix.
“Just being there for my teammates and everything,” he said. “Just being help side. Getting in the gaps. Getting more steals, more rebounds.”
Still, Sharpe is such an elite athlete that he can make up for his mistakes.
“He guards the ball really well, especially for his age,” Simons said. “He’s very smart. I think he’s just catching on things quickly.”
After the game, Billups said he thought Sharpe played well beyond the dunks. He also hit a few jumpers and had two assists.
“He’s just talented,” Simons said. “He’s beyond this world talented.”
And he is also what Billups called “sneaky funny.”
Sharpe might be quiet publicly. For now. But Billups said he changes once he warms up to you.
“He’s actually a funny guy,” Billups said. “But he would never be funny with people that he doesn’t really know. It even took me a while to get to that point with him. … He’s got a great way about him.”
— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).
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