Reed Sheppard's Numbers Are Still Outlandish but He Remains the Real Deal
The numbers that Reed Sheppard continues to amass reek of being inflated. Yet, the Kentucky freshman continues to defy expectations while looking like one of the best guards in the 2024 NBA Draft.
Early season statistical anomalies are always the best. We get to fantasize about a prospect maintaining impossible production before they inevitably revert to the mean. The tricky part, though, is when that reversion isn’t as aggressive as expected. This conflict poses questions of how real the numbers are and leads us to nitpick every inch of their game in a desperate quest for answers. In the 2024 NBA Draft, the epitome of this conundrum is Kentucky Wildcat freshman Reed Sheppard.
Through the first month or two of the season, Sheppard’s numbers were otherworldly. While his efficiencies have diminished, they are still in rarified air. Sheppard is such a unique prospect that comparisons can be really tricky with him. So, obviously, we had to run some queries to see how he held up to his peers.
According to BartTorvik, Sheppard is one of two players from a true high major conference since 2014 to have an effective field goal rate of at least 65, an assist rate of at least 20, and an attempt rate of at least eight threes per 100 possessions. The other player is Lonzo Ball. That effective field goal rate is an unrealistic benchmark, but the grouping becomes a lot more interesting when we lower it to 60. Using those same benchmarks but an effective field goal rate of 60, we get a group that includes Lonzo Ball, Reed Sheppard, Tyrese Haliburton, Markell Johnson, Mark Sears’s current season at Alabama, Landry Shamet (2x), Kevin Huerter, Jalen Brunson, Davion Mitchell, Dakota Mathias (2x), and Cassius Winston. Of that group, Sheppard also has the second highest defensive rebounding rate at 14.2 (the highest was 14.3), the highest block rate of 3.1 (next closest is 2.1), the highest steal rate of 4.6 (next closest is 3.8), and the highest three-point percentage of 53.7 (next closest is 49.7).
In case those numbers aren’t impressive enough, let’s dive deeper. In 28.1 minutes per game with a usage rate of just 18.1, Sheppard is averaging 12.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.4 steals, and 0.8 blocks on 52.7/53.7/78.7 shooting splits. According to Synergy, Sheppard is scoring 1.163 points per possession (PPP) overall (95th percentile), 1.466 PPP spotting up (98th percentile), 1.091 PPP as the pick-and-roll ball handler (93rd percentile), 1.47 PPP on all jumpers (99th percentile), 1.60 PPP shooting off the catch (99th percentile), and 1.26 PPP shooting off the dribble (96th percentile). Essentially, whenever Sheppard shoots it, betting on him to miss is a losing bet.
There isn’t really a number that points to a flaw in Sheppard’s game. Sheppard is currently listed at 6’3”, which has garnered some skepticism, but that’s really the only concern so far. Even then, it’s a tougher road, but there are plenty of guards who measure under 6’3” who have at least found some sort of success in the NBA. Whatever number you want to look at, it’s essentially going to tell you that Sheppard is a surefire NBA player. Numbers are important, but so is the tape. So, what does the tape tell us?
Sheppard’s scoring efficiency is nearly unparalleled in this draft class, let alone any other. One issue with that, though, is that Sheppard is an extremely low-volume scorer. Sheppard’s usage of 18.1 ranks behind those of Justin Edwards (18.4), DJ Wagner (22.2), Antonio Reeves (23.4), and Rob Dillingham (29). Additionally, Sheppard has taken single-digit shot attempts in 16 of his 22 games this season. The optimistic view is that Sheppard is really disciplined with his shot selection and has a mature approach. While there is a lot of truth to that view, the pessimistic view that his scoring efficiency is severely boosted by his low volume also has some credence. However, in those games where he did have double-digit shot attempts, Sheppard averaged 20.8 points while shooting 56% from the floor and 60% from three.
Some of the biggest concerns with Sheppard’s game are his inability to separate from defenders and scoring inside the arc. Ignore the cliches that you’ll inevitably hear about Sheppard’s athleticism, because he is a good athlete. However, he does lack that top-tier explosiveness and flexibility that dynamic on-ball creators, especially at his size, require. Sheppard is capable of getting to his spots, but he typically needs a screen to do so.
So far this season, Sheppard has only executed 10 isolation possessions where he’s scoring 0.8 PPP (45th percentile) while shooting 42.9%, compared to 55, 1.091 (93rd percentile), and 56.4% respectively when running the pick-and-roll. This difficulty in separating really hinders his two-point scoring ability. Sheppard is only taking 25.1% of his shots at the rim and shooting 54.8%. These aren’t awful numbers, but they are far below what we’d expect to see from a Top 10 pick and the names that showed up in the queries we ran earlier. For comparison, Lonzo Ball took 37.6% of his shots at the rim while shooting 74%, Jalen Brunson was at 28.4% and 67.8%, and Tyrese Haliburton was at 23.8% and 74.6%. Even someone like Tyus Jones, who is more similar to Sheppard’s physique, was at 30.3% and 54% respectively.
What’s also concerning is that Sheppard doesn’t have much of an in-between game. Sheppard only takes a floater on 4.8% of his possessions, and only 20 of his 116 jumpers have come inside the arc. For comparison, using the names we just ran through, Sheppard ranks right in the middle in terms of frequency for those attempts with eerily similar efficiency numbers. It would be tremendous if Sheppard turned into a rim-pressure monster, but it isn’t a necessity. While the finishing consistency isn’t there yet, because it rarely is for freshmen, there are promising signs of growth and comfortability as he’s finishing with both hands, finishing through contact, and leveraging his quick first step to get downhill.
One of the reasons that Sheppard’s lack of consistent two-point scoring isn’t a locked-in red flag is because of his outside shooting prowess. So far, 82.8% of Sheppard’s jumpers have come from three, where he’s shooting 53.1% on 96 attempts. From three, he’s shooting 54.5% when spotting up, 56.3% running the pick-and-roll, 58.3% in transition, 44.4% on handoffs, 53.4% shooting off the catch, and 52.2% shooting off the dribble. Sheppard isn’t going to be a 50% three-point shooter in the NBA, but it feels foolish to do anything but accept that he’s a lethal shooter at this point.
Despite coming off the bench for most of this season, Sheppard is the leading assist man on Kentucky, accounting for 23% of their total assists with 92. Sheppard isn’t the flashiest playmaker in the country, but he is one of the most consistent and effective. When we include Sheppard’s assists, his overall PPP jumps from 1.163 (96th percentile) to 1.519 (99th percentile).
One of the most impressive aspects of Sheppard’s passing is his floor vision. He’s great at seeing every inch in the halfcourt, but his real superpower is kick-starting the offense before the defense gets set. Whether it’s off a miss or a make, there are few players who are as adept as Sheppard is at making hit ahead passes. He constantly catches retreating defenses sleeping with his perfectly placed outlet passes. By the time Sheppard has received the inbound pass, rebound, or outlet pass, he’s already surveyed the other end of the floor and is ready to launch a 50-foot dime to set up a teammate.
Sheppard is a one-man fast break and a primary reason that Kentucky ranks in the 98th percentile in overall PPP, 86th percentile in transition, has the fourth-best offensive efficiency, and has the third-lowest turnover rate. Sheppard’s playmaking doesn’t exclusively shine in transition, either.
One of the reasons that Sheppard’s interior scoring numbers are what they are is because he is typically looking to set up teammates once he collapses the defense. He is incredibly patient and measured with his interior passing, which allows him to draw out his handle and pull defenders to the last possible moment before setting up a teammate for an easy score. Whether he’s playing with rim runners or active cutters, Sheppard’s teammates can feast on his drives.
Sheppard’s passing is a legitimate weapon on the perimeter as well. Here, Sheppard runs a high pick-and-roll and gets the switch. Since Miami is playing at the level, the weak side defender has to cheat toward the lane and tag the roller. Sheppard is looking to set up his teammate at the rim, so those weak side defenders are the ones he’s reading. As Norchad Omier recovers to the roller, the help defender slowly drifts into no man’s land as he hasn’t looked over his shoulder for his man once during this possession. Sheppard immediately spots his teammate making the back cut and makes the pass that eventually leads to a foul.
Even when playing more of an off-ball role, Sheppard’s vision, accuracy, and quick decision-making can carve up a defense. The play design here is really fun and puts the defense in a brutal spot. Dillingham initiates the pick-and-roll on the right side and runs off the screen to the middle of the floor. This positioning creates a bit of confusion among the defense on who is to tag the roller. Since Reeves is a lethal shooter and technically in the strong side corner, his defender doesn’t rotate to the lane. Additionally, since Zvonimir Ivisic is massive and his defender doesn’t want to give up an easy lob or jumper, he stays glued to him on the left block. As Dillingham comes off the screen, the defense switches on the ball, and Ivisic floats out towards the corner a bit, drawing his defender with him. Sheppard immediately sees that the defenders didn’t switch effectively and delivers an absolute laser to set up the open layup.
By every metric, Sheppard is an elite defender. Kentucky’s defensive rating goes from 95.5 (26th) when he’s on the court to 116 (344th) when he’s off the court. He’s also just one of five players, and the only freshman, since 2014 from a true high major conference with a block rate of at least 3.0 and a steal rate of at least 4.5. The others to achieve that are Tari Eason, Gary Payton II, Josh Reaves, and Matisse Thybulle (2x). Despite all of that, there are still concerns that continue to pop up.
Let’s start with the good, though, because he does have some truly absurd defensive tape this season. Here, Sheppard tracks his man from the left to the right corner as North Carolina runs a Spain pick-and-roll to the left side of the floor. As the lone weak side defender, it is Sheppard’s responsibility to tag the roller. As RJ Davis comes off the screen and is prepared to feed Armando Bacot, he sees Sheppard lurking for the steal. Instead of forcing it, Davis immediately pivots back and goes to make the skip pass to the wing shooter since Sheppard is on the opposite block. Once Davis picks up his dribble, Sheppard immediately sprints back to his man. He perfectly anticipates the pass, displays exceptional ground coverage, picks off the pass, and is rewarded with a transition dunk.
This time, Sheppard does something similar. As the ball handler comes off the screen, he panics and kills his dribble at the mere sight of a second defender, instead looking to swing the ball. On the right wing, Sheppard rotates to the roller while still reading the ball handler the entire time. He makes a calculated gamble, picks off the lazy pass, and gets another dunk in transition.
Most of Sheppard’s off-ball defense shows that he has a high understanding of his responsibilities and what the offense is trying to do. However, as the season has progressed, he’s also started to develop some bad habits. Sheppard continues to ball-watch more than he should and gives far too much cushion to perimeter shooters. He still positions himself as if his man isn’t just a pass away at any moment. With more experience, this should be something he can work out of his game as he realizes that his man is almost always one pass away. If Sheppard continues to give that big of a cushion when defending off-ball in the NBA, he’s going to let his man find a rhythm incredibly quickly. Yes, I know that one of these shots doesn’t go in, but that’s a 38% three-point shooter on difficult attempts that shouldn’t be left that wide open.
The cushion and lack of physicality that Sheppard has shown defending off-ball is also regularly popping up with his on-ball defense too. When combined with his tendency to cross his feet and rise up out of his stance, it can lead to some really ugly possessions. Too frequently, Sheppard is dying on screens, not providing proper resistance, or simply getting blown by.
A saving grace for Sheppard has been the fact that he has some of the best defensive hands in recent years. Sheppard is averaging only 1.8 fouls per game, in part due to his lack of physicality but mostly due to his lightning-quick and abnormally accurate hands, as we can see below.
As Georgia brings the ball up, Sheppard is in a really bad defensive stance where he’s bent over at the waste instead of sitting down in a proper stance. As the ball handler attacks, Sheppard provides zero resistance as he crosses his feet and fails to stay in front of the ball. As the shot goes up, though, Sheppard bails himself out with a fantastic poke away that most players would commit a foul on.
Sheppard’s on-ball defense isn’t all bad, though. When he wants too, he can adequately move his feet to stay in front of the ball. Here, Sheppard gets half a step behind because he bites a little on the shot fake. Since he was in a better defensive stance, though, he’s able to quickly recover and get back rim side. As the offense resets, Sheppard again gets in a proper stance, slides his feet, and quickly flips his hips multiple times. At no point does Sheppard prohibit the ball handler from getting to his spot, but his tenaciousness and tighter fundamentals allow him to get a solid contest on a tough shot.
What’s even more encouraging about Sheppard’s defense is that we’re seeing him actively learn from his mistakes and lapses within the same game. Here, Sheppard completely screws up his pick-and-roll coverage. Sheppard knows the screen is coming, so he starts to position himself to keep the ball on the left side of the floor. Instead of opening his hips, though, Sheppard maintains a square stance despite being to the side of the ball handler. This lapse in positioning gives the ball handler a free lane to attack before the help defense can get there and doesn’t allow Sheppard to react quickly enough to even stay with the ball.
Just a few possessions later in the same game, though, Sheppard does a much better job. As the screen comes, Sheppard is again trying to force the ball left, but he’s opened up his hips where he can properly react to a drive in that direction. After a few pivots, Sheppard finds himself back rim side as the ball handler uses the screen. Sheppard slithers over the screen with ease, stays attached to the ball handler’s hip, and gets a strong contest on a bad shot.
Reed Sheppard is a fascinating prospect. He’s capable of playing on or off-ball while being one of the most lethal shooters in the country. Sheppard has been very low maintenance and required minimal usage, but even when he’s gotten the volume, his efficiency hasn’t tapered off. He’ll need to improve his interior scoring, but his combination of passing and shooting is more than enough in the meantime. Defensively, Sheppard’s numbers show an all-time type of defender, but the tape suggests something different. Like most things in life, reality is somewhere in between. Sheppard certainly isn’t a bad defender, but there are some bad habits that must be cleaned up. Despite all of the nitpicking, which a lot of the concerns are, Sheppard’s numbers are far from artificial. It remains to be seen what type of NBA guard Sheppard will amount to, but it feels safe to say that he’s one of the most impressive in the 2024 NBA Draft and one that probably shouldn’t be overthought.