Hawks guard Sharife Cooper focused on being a leader in second season

Hawks guard Sharife Cooper reacts after sinking a three-pointer against the Cleveland Cavaliers on October 6, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Hawks guard Sharife Cooper reacts after sinking a three-pointer against the Cleveland Cavaliers on October 6, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The Hawks still needed to find a rhythm as they prepared to play their second Summer League game on Monday night. One of the players who can really help them find the right gears is second-year guard Sharife Cooper.

The 21-year-old’s start to the Summer League has been far from ideal as he’s nursed thumb soreness that kept him out of practice the day before the Hawks’ opener Saturday. So, he missed some vital time to gel with his teammates. He ended up making just one of his six attempts from the floor in addition to three turnovers in 19 minutes.

But Cooper was the first to say he would not make any excuses for how the team played in a 72-66 loss to the Jazz, despite his thumb bothering him throughout the game. He has turned the page toward the rest of the tournament and is eager to settle into a leadership role on the Summer League roster and potentially on the roster for the NBA season.

“I’m just taking the experience I got from last year to, you know, come in (and) implement it into this year,” Cooper said following the Hawks’ practice on Sunday. “Little things like, you know, being a leader, having the experience to help new guys and, and just ultimately growing and maturing, is my plan for this year.”

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The Hawks drafted Cooper last year with the 48th overall pick in the second round. He played 13 games, averaging just three minutes. He spent most of his time in the G League with the College Park Skyhawks where he averaged 17.1 points, four rebounds and 7.3 assists on 43.5% shooting from the floor and 36.8% shooting from 3.

This year, the Hawks will look for Cooper to be more vocal in his role as the team’s floor general and the Powder Springs native is eager to lean into it.

“(Just) continuing to work, continuing to, shoot better, handle better, make better decisions, all those things come with maturity and growth. So those are some of my areas that I want to grow in,” he said.

Cooper added that he has leaned on the Hawks coach staff and trainers to help him take the next step forward. He said that coach Nate McMillan has also encouraged him to focus on pushing the pace and getting after guys defensively this summer.

So, Cooper is looking to continue incorporating those focuses into his game when the team takes the court over the next week.

“Just being a pesky on-ball defender, you know, escorting guys up the court, you know, kind of dictating their offense with my defense,” the former Auburn Tiger said. “So those are a couple of things, getting in passing lanes and just being disruptive. Those are things I’ve tried to focus on.”

He has already seen the steps he has taken between last season and this year and when he looks back on his time in college and the growth is, of course, even more noticeable.

“Man, a lot,” he said. “Auburn was a crazy year for me going through everything I went through. So, being from that, myself from college to now like it’s a really different, different player.”

While at Auburn, Cooper missed his first 12 games as the NCAA investigated his eligibility after his representatives had reportedly contacted some international professional teams in case he was unable to suit up for the Tigers.

Cooper went on to play 12 games for Auburn and was named to the SEC’s all-freshman team.

Like at Auburn, Cooper will look to shake off the rust after a limited start. He won’t let the thumb soreness bother him and he aims to be the leader the Hawks need him to be.

“I’ve been, you know, trying to get back into things,” Cooper said. “I had a couple of injuries, and you know, a little reaction the other day. So, I’ll try and get my wind back and trying to you know, get back into playing. So, my rhythm will come. I’m not really worried about that. But I feel like it starts to slow down a little bit in this game, it’ll be better.”