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The Prospect Overview: Put Your Trust in Ben Sheppard
Ben Sheppard is a 6'6" wing who hit 41.5% of his threes while earning an All-Defensive Team nod in the Missouri Valley Conference. Maxwell makes the case for drafting the Belmont senior!
Every trade deadline, every free agency period, and every draft, we hear the same reports—Team X is looking to add length, shooting, and defense. The problem is that very few players have all three, and the ones that do usually cost a pretty penny to acquire. For that reason, drafting a player who has the potential to bring those qualities to a team on a cost-controlled contract is appealing. This is where Belmont’s Ben Sheppard presents an incredible value proposition for NBA teams.
He’s 6’6”. He shot 41.5% from three on six attempts per game. He made the Missouri Valley All-Defensive Team.
Ben Sheppard has length, shooting, and defensive acumen. He’s also a reliable decision-maker who has grown as a passer, and he has more to offer than basic, stand-still shooting. I was able to speak with Ben Sheppard this past week. You can listen to the full interview here, and I’ve included excerpts from that conversation in this article.
There’s a difference between being an efficient three-point shooter and a dynamic three-point shooter. Simply shooting a respectable percentage from three is one thing, and it certainly isn’t bad. But there are guys who can make catch-and-shoot threes when parked in the corner, and there are guys who can hit more difficult looks coming off movement from NBA distance. Sheppard falls into the latter category. After hitting 37.1% of his threes as a junior, it would have been reasonable to expect a drop in Sheppard’s percentage given an increase in his usage. Instead, Sheppard improved, hitting 41.5% of his threes against increased defensive attention while keeping volume nearly identical.
If a team wants Ben Sheppard to be a basic catch-and-shoot player, he’ll be able to do that well. He made 40.4% of his catch-and-shoot threes, per Synergy. On top of that, 90 out of his 151 catch-and-shoot threes were classified as “guarded” looks. As Belmont’s leading scorer, these shots weren’t coming easy. He won’t crumble in the face of closeouts and can connect on tougher attempts.
What makes Sheppard pop is his ability to hit threes off movement and that he moves a lot. Sheppard is like the Energizer Bunny, constantly running and moving hard off the ball. His cardio is sublime, and he knows how to make life difficult for defenders who both need to keep up with him as well as track him as he weaves through off-ball screens.
“Cardio and conditioning have been a huge part of what I do on the court. It’s something that’s always been with me.”
This past season, Sheppard hit 48.7% of his threes off screens and 47.6% of his threes in handoff settings, per Synergy. His off-ball ability creates an outrageous level of gravity, opening up the floor for his teammates. He’s also a persistent thorn in the side of the defense, an ever-present pain that exists and cannot be disregarded. Teams cannot afford to put inattentive defenders on him, because he will burn them. His ability to position himself open in a more basic sense is great, too. He’ll move just enough out of the way when a teammate gets into the paint to both get himself a clean look while creating a clear passing lane for his teammate. In a complementary role, that will be an additional value add. You can’t just throw your worst defender on Ben Sheppard and put a better one on a star—that bad defender’s issues will still rear their ugly head.
Sheppard was on my radar coming into the season because of his movement shooting. It’s a real, pro-level skill. But what launched Sheppard into the “this guy has to get drafted” range for me was his development as an on-ball player. We’ll get to the passing in a bit, but let’s stick with the scoring first.
While Sheppard wasn’t the best at-rim finisher (53.6% at the rim in the halfcourt), he is solid, and he manages to get inside a lot; 29.3% of his shots in the halfcourt came at the rim. He’s not just a long-range chucker. When chased off the line, his length becomes obvious—he attacks with big, long strides. As a result, when the defender is behind him, they won’t catch up. That said, he can be a bit upright as a driver, which diminishes his vertical bounce and partially leads to his lack of efficiency at the rim. It grew frustrating seeing opponents turn away his shots at the rim because he tried to finish too low. But the bottom line is, he finds a way to score if you’re not going to let him shoot. Sheppard also does well as a cutter off the ball. That didn’t show up as much this year given that he was a leading man, but in a slightly more complementary role last year where he got to cut more, he made 63.3% of his shots at the basket. He ranked in Synergy’s 91st percentile for points per possession on cutting plays last season. His instincts, timing, and feel for the game enable him to go backdoor when defenders play him too tight or when the defender gets stuck ball-watching. So, while his rim numbers were down this year, it’s important to consider his work as a Junior, which will mirror his NBA role more closely.
His in-between game and pick-and-roll scoring are where Sheppard made his biggest leaps as a scorer. As a sophomore, Sheppard took only 17 pull-up twos, hitting 41.2% of them, and scored 0.676 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler. This year, Sheppard took 55 pull-up twos, hit 43.6% of them, and scored 0.931 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Both his number of pull-up twos and percentage are favorable to his draftable wing peers, and his pick-and-roll scoring graded out in the 84th percentile of Division I players this season. His mid-range pull-up is silky with a high release. It’s another tool in his belt for when defenders for him to attack. A strong one and two dribble pull up are important for shooters when they face aggressive closeouts, but the path to the rim isn’t clear toward the end of the clock. Sheppard has that down. This is an element of Sheppard’s game he continues to work on as he heads into the pre-draft process. He’s been training with Adam Harrington, a Brooklyn Nets assistant coach for the past six seasons, who is noted for training with Kevin Durant. When I asked Sheppard what he’s been most excited about showing off in terms of his development, he noted his expanding scoring profile.
“Definitely shooting! Different footwork, different ways to get into my shots…Once I get into the lane, [coming] off screens, setting screens, off ball movement, cutting, and getting that timing down.”
Ben Sheppard made real growth as a passer, too. Through his first three college seasons, he had the luxury of playing alongside Grayson Murphy, who was one of the best table-setting guards in college hoops. As a senior, Sheppard had to figure out A) how to play without Murphy and B) how to be a lead option.
“Junior year, I was kind of able to take the pressure off people like Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy, great players for this program. I was able to help them and do my best, and I had a great year that year. But this year, I was given a bigger role, a different role than anything I previously had at Belmont. I had more on ball responsibilities, and I had to create for myself and others. I think I grew as a passer and a creator, and people were able to see different parts of my game that they haven’t been able to see this past three years.
I never came off a ball screen those previous three years. Just getting comfortable with those types of reads and plays…Whether it was a skip pass or a dish to my big man, we worked on that a lot in practice, so I was glad to see it come to fruition in the games.”
His transformation from eater to chef was an admirable one. On pick-and-roll possessions including passes, Sheppard ranked in the 89th percentile in college basketball. He did a good job of playing through his progression, finding the big man for easy ones, but also making more intermediate and advanced reads to perimeter shooters. There were flashes of creativity mixed in there, too, making clever passes to thread needles when plays broke down.
Where I was most impressed was with his ball-handling improvements. To be clear, Sheppard isn’t a guy who will be thrown on an island to break down opponents off the bounce. But last year, he played almost entirely upright with the ball. As a result, his dribble was high, making it easy for defenders to get into his handle and knock the ball loose. While he’s still not the bendiest on-ball player, he does play lower to the ground than a year ago. He’s not an easy strip target, and he’s able to operate on the ball reliably as he prepares to play at the next level. He still needs to be more consistent in this regard, but it’s not the red flag area it was a year ago.
Ben Sheppard loves defense. Like, he really loves defense. When I spoke with him this past off-season, he mentioned it:
“I definitely take pride in defense. When I was smaller [before his growth spurt], guarding smaller guards and bigger people, that helped me when I grew. I can still guard the same type of players. The way I was going to get playing time my first two years was my defense. That’s my favorite side of the ball.”
Despite the increased workload, Sheppard still performed well on the defensive end, earning an All-Defensive Team selection in the MVC.
“Defense for me is where I get it started, bringing tenacity and energy. Sometimes, I felt like I was protecting myself in some sort of way because I had to bring so much on the offensive side that I couldn’t really afford to get in foul trouble this year, but what I still did my best and what I did was able to get me in the conference for all defensive team in the Missouri Valley.
Sheppard’s numbers don’t fly off the page on this end of the floor. His 2.3 STL% is a good mark for a wing, while his 0.5 BLK% is actually on the low end for a prospect. That said, when you watch the tape, it becomes evident that he could be capable at the next level. He does a good job of staying in front of his opponents, and there are two reasons that immediately stand out as to why—his feet, and his ability to stay long. Even if he’s not the quickest, Sheppard is light on his feet when he sits down. He won’t move out of the way like a saloon door when someone tests him. His lateral movement is solid, but it’s aided by his knack for keeping his arms long and extended. He’s hard to turn the corner on, and players are never really out of the weeds even when they start to get a step on him. Perhaps his greatest performance came during his junior season, when he put the clamps on Scotty Pippen Jr. Pippen was unable to get to his spots, scoring only 10 points (one of his lowest totals of the season) and taking only seven shots, his fewest in any game that year. Sheppard didn’t let him get anything easy.
Listed at 190 pounds, Sheppard will need to continue to grow stronger. He’s best guarding down, where he can maintain a strength advantage while utilizing his length. Against pros, he’ll likely slot best as a 2 out of the gate while he continues to develop his body. He’s better guarding down than up. He’ll also need to be more consistent around ball screens, an area where he ran into a bit of trouble this past season. A few times, he got leveled by picks and his man got inside easier than one would like. His offensive usage may have played a role, as previously noted, and he has done well in that regard previously. His propensity to play too upright can bite him here, too. At times, his feet can get crossed and he’ll be forced to recover because he isn’t low in a stance. Changes of direction give him trouble. That posture can also hamper his contests, and that likely factors into his lower block rate.
Still, Sheppard can contain opponents at the point of attack, and in a lower usage role, he’ll be in a better position to do so. Another part of Sheppard’s appeal is his off-ball work. Just like on offense, Sheppard moves with big, long strides. His savvy carries over, too. As a result, he’s a real threat in passing lanes. Lazy skip passes are prey for him. When he needs to rotate, he knows what his responsibilities are and gets into position in a hurry. If he can shore up his stance, he can be a well-rounded, solid defender that isn’t easily exploitable. Ultimately, if he can hit shots, all he’ll need to be is acceptable on that end of the floor to earn serious playing time.
A concept I harp on a lot is the trustworthiness of a prospect. Will a coach feel comfortable putting a player on the floor? Will they know what to expect when that player is on the court? Can the player be counted upon to do the work to improve their skills? These are important questions to ask. With Ben Sheppard, I feel a high level of trust in him and his game.
I’ve spoken with Ben twice now—last off-season and just this past week. He does what he says he’s going to do, and he has a radiant, obvious love of the game. Year over year, he’s shown a clear track record of improvement. His three-point percentage climbed each season in college, as did his number of attempts per game. When we spoke before his senior season, he noted the efforts he was making to grow as a playmaker. The end result: 2023 the highest usage rate of his college career, his highest assist rate to date, and one of his lowest turnover rates. His handle tightened and he played with more bend, keeping his dribble lower. In spite of the increased workload, he still moved with fervor off the ball and managed to earn an All-Defensive team nod. Plus, let’s not forget about his cutting, a skill that he still has, but didn’t get to display as much this past season.
When it comes to making a second-round pick, you can put your trust in Ben Sheppard. He’s continuously gotten better in every aspect of the game, he knows how to play without the ball, he gets after it on defense, and he limits his mistakes on the floor. He’s mature, he loves to compete, he wants to win, and he “gets” the game of basketball. After what he’s shown, and with how valuable his skill set is in the modern NBA, Ben Sheppard deserves to hear his name called on draft night.
-I’ll lead off with Amen. Let’s start with the positives: he is an absolutely ridiculous athlete. Like, top 0.1% of human beings on Planet Earth athlete. His first-step burst is ridiculous, and he floats through the air with astounding grace. What makes these tools shine, though, is his coordination going north-south and his creativity. Amen can play with a degree of shiftiness and wiggle that allows him to weave through traffic. He’s not just a straight-line threat, which makes telegraphing and containing him exceedingly difficult. Despite being a limited shooter (more on that later), he still got to the rim a lot, generating 35.9% of his shots in the halfcourt at the rim. There, he converted 59.2% of his shots despite the cramped spacing. When getting into the paint, his vision and absurd ability to throw unique passes add another layer to his game. He’s thrown passes that I’ve never seen before. While he can force his feeds at times, I was generally unbothered by that. I want to see a young player with that type of skill and artistry explore as much of the studio space as possible while the stakes are lower. Defensively, he has worlds of potential. When engaged on the ball, he’s an impenetrable point guard defender, staying in his stance and moving his feet faster than imaginable. He’s also able to dart passing lanes to open up his nasty transition game or meet opponents at the rim as a weak side rim protector.
What concerns me with Thompson is his shooting, and how that can limit his high-end outcomes. Take a player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, for example. Like Thompson, his game is predicated on collapsing defenses through his ability to get inside the paint. What differentiates them is that SGA is a big-time pull-up threat. He’s hit 36.1% of his threes off the dribble this season, and 49.2% of his pull-up 2s, per Synergy. As a prospect at Kentucky, he wasn’t as adept from three off the bounce (25% on a measly 12 attempts), but he did hit 44.2% of his threes off the catch and 42.2% of his twos off the dribble. He also connected on 47.8% of his long twos and 37.8% of jump shots inside 17 feet, per Synergy. Compare that with Amen Thompson’s numbers this past season: 28.8% on catch-and-shoot threes, 31.8% on threes off the dribble, 26.5% on pull-up 2s, 50% on eight attempted long twos, and 22.6% on jump shots inside of 17 feet. Worse for Amen is that of his catch-and-shoot threes, 36 of his 52 attempts were unguarded. His unguarded looks were really unguarded, too. Teams completely ignore him on the perimeter. At age 20, he’s comfortably behind where SGA was as a shooting threat as a 19-year-old at Kentucky.
That is serious ground to make up. If anyone can do it, though, it would be this type of world-class athlete. But still, to hit a star-level outcome on offense, there needs to be a significant leap in his shooting. This is further complicated by the fact that he doesn’t do much off the ball. He’s not an active cutter or mover for the most part. Often, he’s just standing around. While that could change, it’s another habit shift that he’ll have to make while facing better competition. I’m not out on Amen Thompson by any means, but I can’t get him into the Top 3 conversation given what I’ve seen thus far. I understand the risk in passing on him, but I believe his upside requires more tweaks and leaps than his biggest supporters think. I hope he gets there, though. He’s one of the most exciting players I’ve ever seen. If he hits, it will be great for fans and the league as a whole.
My concerns with Ausar are different. Ausar is a much more engaged player across the board. He’s a willing mover, cutter, and relocator on offense and plays defense with more intensity. Ausar made 31.4% of his catch-and-shoot threes, and mechanically, his jump shot is much smoother at this point. He was ignored similarly to Amen, but not quite to the same extreme, with 59% of his threes being uncontested per Synergy vs. 69% for Amen. While he’s a great leaper, Ausar doesn’t contort and maintain coordination as well as Amen. As a result, he only made 51.1% of his halfcourt rim attempts. On the go, he can get a little out of control as a passer and lacks a degree of high-level fluidity that limits his on-ball upside. He’s best slowing down or coming to a complete stop before making a pass. Still, given his shooting improvements, outstanding defensive upside, good decision-making as a passer, and athleticism, he’s a firm Top 10 guy. Ausar really knows how to play a complementary role to his teammates on the floor. He needs to get stronger to aid his finishing and round out his jump shot, but I think the strength will come and I’m a believer in his stroke. Ausar looks like a good starter with All-Star upside if things break right for him.
-Our own Tyler Metcalf did a phenomenal job of recapping the McDonald’s All-American Game, but I still wanted to hit on a few standouts. Bronny James is going to be in the NBA for a long time. His ability to relocate without the ball, hit threes with a hand in his face, and defend opposing guards are all exactly where you’d like them to be for a potential one-and-done combo guard. While Ron Holland didn’t wow with his scoring, I’m leaning toward him as my #1 prospect in the class (I still have plenty of work to do on the 2024 class, so a grain of salt here). His defensive skills, which wowed me in the past, were on full display. Holland’s mobility and motor are obscene. At 6’8”, he has everything you’d want to provide versatility on that end. He can slide well, he’s fast, and he can meet anyone at the rim. Still, he needs to grow stronger, and his offensive game needs to be rounded out. I’ve seen him bite off more than he can chew as a creator and he’s still not a consistent shooter. Lastly, Aaron Bradshaw left a big impression on me. The 7-footer’s effort can come and go, and he’s really skinny for a big man. Still, he wanted every single ball that came off the rim in that game. With great physical tools, a pure stroke paired with a high release point, and solid rim protection instincts, that type of determination on the glass could solidify a Top 10 spot for him in the 2024 draft.
-Justin Powell declared for the draft while maintaining his eligibility. The 6’6” guard from Washington State will be interesting to monitor going forward. While he’s not the greatest athlete and struggled inside (37.9% on twos), there is still a lot to like. Namely, he has size, he can shoot the cover off the ball, and he’s a tremendous passer. Across three seasons of high-major basketball for Auburn, Tennessee, and Washington State, Powell has connected on 41.9% of his triples while taking 9.3 per 100 possessions. Per BartTorvik, only 10 other players in high-major conference took over 9.0 threes per 100 possessions while hitting over 40% of them. The only two on that list to also have an assist percentage over 15 are Landers Nolley II and Powell. His passing is straight-up dazzling, with great timing on his feeds and the ability to disguise his reads. The size, shooting, and feel are all there. If he can add to his defensive game and round out his finishing (which does have some encouraging flashes), an NBA future could be in the cards. The size, shooting, and feel are there.