What is Reed Sheppard’s future with Kentucky basketball? New UK coach Mark Pope weighs in.

During Sunday’s sprawling scene at Rupp Arena — when UK basketball fans packed the place for an introduction event for new head coach Mark Pope — one of the loudest cheers was reserved for a man who wasn’t in the building.

When Pope referenced star UK player Reed Sheppard during his opening remarks, it led to a delay in the proceedings.

Fans chanted for Sheppard — the son of Pope’s former UK roommate, Jeff, and a player who earned several national freshman of the year honors last season — to remain a Wildcat for one more season.

That’s going to be a hard sell given that Sheppard — who averaged 12.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals in 28.9 minutes per game last season — is projected as a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft.

But Pope, who played with Sheppard’s father on UK’s legendary 1996 NCAA championship team, hasn’t shied away from discussing the possibility of a sophomore Sheppard in Kentucky colors.

In addition to Sunday’s comments, Kentucky’s new coach further discussed a potential Sheppard return during his first UK radio show Monday night.

“As I heard the word (shepherd) come out of my mouth, I’m like, ‘Let’s just let this hang in the air for just a second,’” Pope said Monday, adding that he often uses a “shepherd” metaphor with his players.

“In the perfect, simpatico relationship that we have with Big Blue Nation, everybody jumped on it really quick. And it was brilliant.”

Sheppard, the 2023 Kentucky Mr. Basketball out of North Laurel High School, played the second-most minutes of any Wildcat last season. A return for year two in Lexington would see Sheppard become the cornerstone of Pope’s first UK roster, and also slide into the starting role so many fans clamored for him to have last season.

To his credit, Pope didn’t dismiss the reality that Sheppard (whose mother, Stacey Reed Sheppard, is a former UK women’s basketball star) is dealing with. Sheppard would be a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft, and ESPN’s latest rankings of the top 100 available prospects place him at No. 7 overall.

“Reed is in that elite-air status where he’s a lottery pick. He’s going to be the fourth or fifth or sixth or seventh pick in the NBA draft. And that is not something to be taking lightly, and it’s really extraordinary,” Pope said. “So Reed, the way he’s going to be successful in his future is if he really searches inside himself and finds out where his heart is pulling him. In all honesty, Jeff and Stacey and Reed are very spiritual people, and where God is calling him. That’s just the truth.”

“I told (Jeff), I’m spending a lot of time praying that God will call him back to Kentucky.”

Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard (15) is projected as a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft.
Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard (15) is projected as a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft.

Sheppard still has time on his end to make a decision: College players must officially declare by April 27 if they want to be considered for the 2024 NBA draft, but they have until May 29 — 10 days after the NBA Draft Combine concludes — to remove their names from consideration and retain their college eligibility. Sheppard would undoubtedly be one of the players to receiving an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine.

But the other side of the coin is the rapid pace of player movement that’s taking place in the college basketball landscape.

Players are entering and committing to schools from the NCAA transfer portal, and first-year prospects are reopening their recruitments at warp speed. Rosters are taking shape every hour around the country.

On Monday alone, a pair of Kentucky players from last season (Aaron Bradshaw and Zvonimir Ivisic) committed to new schools from the portal. UK also lost a signee Monday from what was a six-player 2024 recruiting class when guard Boogie Fland requested out of his national letter of intent with the Wildcats.

Pope essentially has a blank canvas to work with when it comes to constructing his first UK roster, with other Wildcats still in the portal (Joey Hart, Adou Thiero and D.J. Wagner, who entered the portal on Monday), heading for the NBA (Rob Dillingham and Justin Edwards) and decommitting (Somto Cyril, Boogie Fland, Karter Knox and Jayden Quaintance).

But that canvas would would come with quite the portrait on it should Sheppard return for another college season.

On Friday morning, Jeff Sheppard told the Herald-Leader that Pope “has been a friend for a long time,” but that he didn’t yet know what was next for Reed.

“He’s trying to go through a process of gathering information to really see truly where he is,” Jeff said. “There’s obviously all kinds of talk. But with a decision like this, you can’t just listen to a little bit of talk. You really have to get concrete information. And so, we feel like we’re going through the process at the right speed.”

Pope didn’t establish any kind of timetable during his radio show Monday night for a decision to be made by Sheppard.

If anything, Pope exuded a sense of calm that comes with knowing that he has a chance, whatever the percentage may be, of having one of college basketball’s best players on his first team at his alma mater.

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