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John Calipari, Reed Sheppard and Kentucky's Recruiting Crossroads

As the Wildcats wrap up their first SEC losing season in 32 years, could a high school sophomore in the hills of Appalachia be the key to a change in strategy?

LONDON, Ky. — The green letters on the electronic sign beside Hal Rogers Parkway flash, “Welcome to the Jungle.” But North Laurel High School, home of the Jaguars, presents a serene exterior on this February evening. Nothing wild seems to be happening here.

The surrounding hillsides are blanketed in snow and cold and quiet, and the pickup-dotted parking lot behind the gym is less than half full. The best show in town, in Laurel County, in the entire basketball-mad state of Kentucky, is available for only limited in-person viewing.

Inside the gym, the 14-member North Laurel pep band is bleating out an endearingly threadbare version of “Sweet Caroline.” This is a trusty audience-participation tune, but there is not much audience and even less participation—an arena that seats 2,200 has fewer than 200 fans in it, per restrictions. As such, ticket demand dwarfs supply. “If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would be standing-room-only every game,” says coach Nate Valentine. “I’ve had everybody from the mailman to the UPS people to you name it calling or knocking on the door asking for tickets.”

Daily Cover: John Calipari vs. The State of Kentucky

Laurel Countians badly want to see their Jaguars, 19–0 and ranked No. 2 and leading the state in scoring at 90.3 points per game. Most of all, they’re eager to gauge the game of the team’s point-guard prodigy, the son of two University of Kentucky greats, sophomore Reed Sheppard. Everyone is impatiently waiting to witness the biggest basketball recruit to come out of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky in decades—and to see if he can bring about a change in the increasingly unpopular way the Wildcats roster is constructed.

The son of Jeff and Stacey Sheppard—the Most Outstanding Player of the men’s 1998 Final Four and a top-15 career scorer in the women’s program at UK—is routinely blowing up box scores. He is averaging a state-leading 33.1 points per game, twice scoring more than 50. He’s had multiple triple doubles, including one game with 17 assists. But it’s happening against modest competition, in a sparsely populated part of the state, amid a recruiting shutdown.

For now, Sheppard is an echo, a word-of-mouth myth wrapped in COVID-19 mystery. In a world where young basketball talents tend to be overexposed by age 16, here comes one with a rare element of suspense. The 2020 AAU circuit barely existed, and college coaches still haven’t been permitted to go on the road to see prospects. Recruiting websites barely have a book of any kind on the 6' 2" sophomore point guard.

The statistics and highlight videos and bloodlines have built the hype; will it turn out to be real? And if it is real, will Kentucky coach John Calipari halt the one-and-done NBA assembly line—which rarely uses in-state parts—to make a scholarship offer to Sheppard?

“It’s going to be the big story of the next couple years,” says longtime Lexington Herald-Leader columnist John Clay. “Is Cal going to recruit him? How hard is he going to recruit him? And is he going to get him?”

It is here, in this Appalachian town of about 8,000 deep in Big Blue country, where the next referendum on Calipari’s increasingly ineffective and locally unpopular recruiting philosophy could play out. The path to college basketball national championships the past five years is to “get old and stay old,” to use the term currently popular with coaches. Old is 21 and 22; young is 18 and 19. The young guys who view UK as an NBA stopover have stopped delivering Final Fours and national titles for Calipari, who last led a team to the Final Four in 2015 and whose current squad is putting the finishing touches on the school’s first losing season in 32 years. So is he willing to try a different approach? And could that different approach start with a Kentucky legacy recruit from a region of the state that has always been politically complicated for coaches of the Cats?

Reed Shepparad

The game tips off, and it is immediately clear that Whitley County is in trouble. The Colonels are playing a loose 2–3 zone, hoping North Laurel’s shooters miss and that the high-octane Jaguars don’t turn this into a full-court layup line. Those hopes are quickly dashed.

After two minutes and nine seconds, Whitley calls timeout. The score is 11–0, and Sheppard has either scored or assisted on all four North Laurel baskets. By the end of the first period it’s 32–7, and Sheppard has five points, six assists and three steals. He isn’t even looking for his own shot. If every pinpoint pass had been converted by his teammates, Sheppard would have had double-figure dimes in a single, eight-minute quarter.

The final score is 87–46. The Jaguars are a symphony of modern hoops, moving the ball quickly in transition for open three-pointers or drives to the basket. Sheppard is the conductor, working most closely with his cousin and lifelong teammate, Ryan Davidson, exhibiting ambidexterity and court awareness very rare for a high school sophomore.

“I assumed he’s typical small-town Kentucky, shoots 30 times a game to score 40 points,” says a Division I coach who has seen Sheppard play. “That’s not the case. The thing that separates him [is that] he makes every right decision, he doesn’t force and he can make every right read of the defense. And he really finishes. He’s good enough to play there.”

By there he means Kentucky. And if he’s good enough to play at Kentucky, he’s good enough to play anywhere.

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Against Whitley County, I had Sheppard’s final line at 19 points on just 14 shots, nine rebounds, 14 assists, six steals. The school’s stat keeper actually did the opposite of hometown typecast and deflated his numbers, crediting him with only five rebounds and 11 assists. Turns out he was the fill-in stat guy; the woman sitting next to him at the scorer’s table was doing her best to help him keep track of all the players.

That was Stacey Sheppard. Across the gym at midcourt, her mom, Lola, sits in the stands and keeps her own stats. A couple of rows behind her sits Jeff, elbow on knee and chin in hand, watching behind a mask that hides his emotions.

Jeff was part of Kentucky’s greatest run since the 1950s, winning national titles in 1996 under Rick Pitino and ’98 under Tubby Smith, with a redshirt year in between when the Wildcats lost the title game in overtime to Arizona. He was a bouncy, burr-headed guard playing a role on loaded teams, but he became the star of the ’98 title run—his 27 points in the national semifinal led Kentucky out of a double-digit hole to beat Stanford in overtime, then he added 16 in a comeback win over Utah in the championship game.

Devout and quietly intense, Sheppard fell in love in college with bubbly country girl Stacey Reed, whose twangy accent makes very clear where she’s from. She was the hyperactive engine of the women’s team, hands and feet moving all the time, quick to smile but quicker to steal the ball from a casual opposing guard. After Jeff’s three-year professional career in Italy, the couple moved back to Stacey’s childhood stomping grounds in Laurel County.

London is 75 miles south of Lexington, where Jeff works as a financial advisor. It’s the home of the annual World Chicken Festival, honoring onetime Laurel Countian Col. Harland Sanders, whose first restaurant was just down the road in Corbin. (The festival features what is billed as the world’s largest skillet, which reportedly can fry 600 chicken quarters at once.) And it is home to the sprawling Reed clan.

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“I’ve got a really big family and most of them are here,” Stacey says. “Jeff just loved the camaraderie that we have with the big family. So there wasn’t a whole lot of talking to get him to stay here. When we settled down, this is where we wanted to be.”

They’re neighbors with Stacey’s sister, which is how Davidson and Sheppard became lifelong running buddies. Ryan has a half-court hoop at his house and Reed has a full-court setup, and from a young age they were at one or the other shooting baskets. The standard fantasy drill: Down two with three seconds left, Sheppard passes to Davidson for the winning shot.

In elementary school and middle school, Jeff coached those two and their friends on club teams—first the Sharks, then the Playmakers. They became pretty good under Jeff’s demanding tutelage. “I was pretty hard on ’em,” he says. “I coached ’em really hard and demanded that they learn how to play correctly. The parents allowed me to really get after their kids and challenge their kids.”

Surely, the restrained Jeff Sheppard didn’t channel his old coach, Pitino, did he?

“Pretty close,” Stacey offers.

“It’s weird, kind of like two different personalities,” Jeff admits. “Some parents were like, ‘Is that Jeff out there yelling like that?’ ”

In terms of playing style, Jeff thinks his Reed plays more like his mother than like him. They do share a point-guard mentality and high basketball IQ. But Stacey says she can only wish she had his floor vision and instincts.

“How he sees the court, he’s a whole ’nother creature,” she says. “A play ahead, I could see it. But he’s on a different level. He just has a natural feel for the game, and he’s played with these guys for so long.”

The current North Laurel team includes half a dozen members of those old youth-league outfits. High school basketball has never been more transient—prep schools, pop-up Christian schools, transfers aplenty—but the Jaguars are a throwback, homegrown team.

“You do this long enough, you’re going to have kids transfer in or transfer out,” Valentine says. “To this point, jealousy hasn’t become a factor for them or their parents—and sometimes the parents are the biggest issue. It’s refreshing to coach.”

Reed’s parents aren’t inclined to be the ones to break up this merry band. In an era where high-level prospects often move around in search of high-profile programs built around collections of star players from all over the country, they’re happy watching their only son play with his grade school pals.

“We do hear that,” Stacey says about possibly moving so Reed could play somewhere else. “But we feel the exposure he gets through AAU, he’s going to get all he needs through that. It’s hard to find the close-knit relationships they have. The memories and relationships and experiences they can create with each other, I don’t want to pull him away from that.

“I think there’s a lot to be said when you’re committed to your hometown, a loyalty to where you’re from. People respond and react and follow you, so it doesn’t just last when you’re in high school. The Londonites are going to be following them wherever they go.”

Of course, where Reed goes after London already is the subject of intense local interest. It’s the story line that looms over everything he does, even while he’s just trying to enjoy a dream season with his childhood buddies.

Kentucky coach John Calipari

Let it be known that John Calipari has spoken by phone with the Sheppards. He’s not alone; so have Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Louisville’s Chris Mack, Indiana’s Archie Miller and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, among others. But before Big Blue Nation gets too angsty about it, rest assured that Cal has at least made an overture.

Only five schools have offered scholarships to date: Iowa, Stetson, South Alabama, Iona and High Point. (The latter two are led by Sheppard’s former UK coaches, Pitino and Smith.) That number figures to escalate in the spring and summer, when Sheppard suits up for an AAU team from Cincinnati on the Adidas circuit and when recruiting opens up again. Among the high-major programs that have staffers following Sheppard on Twitter: Auburn, Tennessee, Xavier, Minnesota, Butler, Marquette, Purdue, Cincinnati, Miami, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Georgetown and Illinois.

Jeff made some comments in 2013 that have Kentucky fans stewing about a potential rift with Cal. Speaking at an event in Ohio, he said, “I personally think maybe there’s a little bit too much emphasis on celebrating first-round draft picks.” Sheppard also noted that he was more comfortable at the time at Louisville than at Kentucky, since he played for Pitino (then the coach of the Cardinals). But those were brief comments eight years ago, and those who know the situation say there is no issue between Cal and Sheppard.

If anything, Jeff and Stacey would like to stay out of Reed’s college decision no matter what it is. They won’t be pushing their alma mater on him. “I think it’s important for Reed to know that even though Jeff and I played there and had a great time there, he’s different,” Stacey says. “He’s doing his own thing. He knows that we don’t care where he goes.”

If Calipari does extend an offer, it will be welcomed. But it might not be accepted on the spot.

“It’s every kid in Kentucky’s dream to play at the University of Kentucky,” Reed says. “But just letting it play out and where I feel I’m most at home. God will put me where He wants me to be, a place where I feel at home and the people feel like family.”

The backdrop for this recruiting saga is the conflicted history of in-state stars and Kentucky—especially an in-state star from the mountains. The Wildcats have been led to national titles by several natives of the state, from Wallace (Wah Wah) Jones and Ralph Beard in the 1940s to Jack Givens in 1978. Louisvillian Derek Anderson was a key contributor to the ’96 title team, fellow Louisvillian Scott Padgett was a key cog on the '98 team and Darius Miller (a holdover Billy Gillispie recruit) filled a key role on Cal’s 2012 title team. But there also have been plenty of players who were passed over (to the outrage of the fans) or who played little after becoming Wildcats (which also produced outrage). 

The ultimate lightning-rod recruit was mountain hero Richie Farmer, who led Clay County to the 1987 state championship. His celebrity grew to the point that the road outside his home in the coal-mining town of Manchester, Ky., was renamed “Richie Boulevard,” and his scoring duels with future NBA star Allan Houston of Louisville Ballard were the stuff of legend. (Farmer scored 51 in a losing effort in a championship rematch in ’88.)

Richie Farmer

Richie Farmer during his days as Wildcat.

There was nearly a populist revolt when it appeared that Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton wouldn’t recruit him. The 5' 11" Farmer was a tweener guard—not enough of a distributor to play the point, and considered too short to play the two. Sutton unenthusiastically had signed a pair of other natives from “out in the state” the year before, “Mr. Basketball” John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, but Farmer was the true people’s choice recruit.

Finally, after a recruiting visit from LSU’s Dale Brown upped the ante, Sutton offered Farmer a scholarship. “Sutton made it seem like it was a burden,” says Rick Bozich of WDRB in Louisville, who has covered basketball in Kentucky for more than 40 years. “In a world with no critics, I don’t think he would have taken Richie.”

Bozich and others think Calipari is less likely to listen to what the fans want: “I don’t think that’s even on his list of things to consider.” He’s shown only moderate interest in recruiting players from the state, and even fewer of those he has signed became starters. There was fury earlier this season when Cal buried shooter Dontaie Allen of Falmouth on the bench as his team was starting 1–6 and missing everything from the perimeter. The fury has dissipated as Allen struggled, but resentment remains.

As this disastrous losing season has unfolded at Kentucky, the fans have increased the volume of their discontent with Calipari’s program-building philosophy. A one-and-done revolving door was never an ideal construct for many fans of the program that once had the most special Senior Day ceremonies in the country. But the fans made a Faustian bargain: We’ll take it as long as we’re winning big.

They’re no longer winning big, though. Or, this season, even winning more than they lose. As one longtime program observer put it, “The fans like one-and-done when they’re going to the Final Four. It’s been a while.”

For a while it appeared that the NBA was poised to disrupt the one-and-done machinery by lowering its mandatory age limit for entry into the draft. That would have allowed high school players more direct access to the NBA, which would force a change to the way Calipari and others (notably Mike Krzyzewski) have approached recruiting. But there is far less talk about that now, especially since the G League has developed an alternative feeder system.

So the opportunity for one-and-done team-building may still exist for quite a while. That may not thrill Kentucky fans, who have seen 28 players in the past 11 seasons leave after one year on campus (25 were first-round picks). “There’s one-and-done fatigue,” says the Herald-Leader’s Clay. “The grumbling has increased every year.”

Can Reed Sheppard—a legacy recruit, a homegrown talent, a mountain boy and a player who looks at Kentucky as something more than just a nine-month stop on the way to the pros—force a change in Calipari’s approach?

“It should change the dynamic,” Bozich says. “The percentage of Kentucky fans who want Reed Sheppard to play for Kentucky has to be close to 100. I think people are hungry for an in-state guy. It has to be tiresome every year to learn the names and invest in their backstories, and by the time you know who they are, they’re gone. I guess I believe in fairy tales, but the guys who are there three or four years are more invested in the program. They stay around and they come back when they’re done playing—even out-of-state guys like Kenny Walker and Mike Pratt. They care about Kentucky basketball.”

Reed Sheppard during a recent high school game

The 16-year-old point guard for the North Laurel Jaguars is surely aware of everything swirling around him but blissfully insulated from much of it. Valentine advised him to turn off the social-media notifications on his phone. His parents keep him grounded. “He had a triple double the other night and his mom was all over him for not playing defense,” Valentine says.

After blowing out Whitley County, Sheppard left the gym with his cousin and other teammates, an undefeated team in a small town on a Friday night. Teenagers without worries, having the time of their young lives. His parents lingered in the suddenly quiet gym, answering questions about the future but trying to hold onto this precious present.

“Tonight, he gets to play a ball game and go have dinner with his buddies,” Jeff said. “College has its own ups and downs, but being able to enjoy every single minute of high school is important.”

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