Day’Ron Sharpe is flying under the radar as a one-and-done center

Day’Ron Sharpe is everything UNC head coach Roy Williams wants in a big man and more — much, much more. He’s a one-and-done prospect hiding in plain sight.

North Carolina’s Roy Williams is a man of distinguished, vintage taste.

After 70 years on this earth, he’s seen quite a bit of life, enough to learn what he wants and how he wants it. Salt in his orange juice — an acquired taste, picked up from his father. Peter Millar pullover sweaters — preferably of the colorfully-striped, quarter-zipped variety. Golf during his free time — where his competitive drive is at its apex.

And with a majority of his life being spent on the hardwood, he’s grown to know exactly what he wants out of his players, specifically his big men — Carolina bigs are to feast on the block, set bone-crushing screens for ball-handlers out on the perimeter, bust their tails running the floor, and crash the offensive glass with reckless abandon.

So, when Williams first caught a glimpse of Day’Ron Sharpe back in 2018 — at the time a raw, underdeveloped sophomore at South Central High School in Winterville, N.C. — he quickly knew what he was looking at, a Carolina big man in its truest form, a player that he didn’t hesitate to offer a scholarship. Williams’ evaluation of Day’Ron Sharpe, was premature and sudden as it may have been, was correct both then and now.

He is everything that North Carolina’s championship-winning program has grown to expect in its bigs and more — much, much more, which is what makes the No. 15 ranked center one of the most underrated freshmen in the nation, a true one-and-done candidate flying under the radar, a consequence of playing his senior season on a Montverde Academy super-team that featured Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes, and Moses Moody.

What makes Day’Ron Sharpe such an appealing NBA prospect?

But now at UNC, Sharpe’s two-way brilliance as a basketball player will shine. Standing at 6-foot-11, 265 pounds with broad shoulders and insatiable hunger, there are few players in the country who offer Sharpe’s intelligent, instantaneous processing on both ends of the floor, where he’s a standout facilitator on offense and a physical, interior-stopper on defense. Basketball is a game of decisions, with thousands of reads being made over the course of a single game, and Sharpe’s decision-making is what sets him apart from most center prospects in this class, making him an ideal complementary center for the modern game.

Sharpe is widely considered an at-the-basket scorer and rebounding specialist, an assessment that isn’t entirely inaccurate. Synergy only has 15 of Montverde’s 25 games recorded in their database, but in that timeframe, Sharpe ranked in the 99th percentile in transition scoring, going a pristine 30-of-34 from the floor, underscoring his nonstop motor as a rim-runner. He’s also one of the more advanced offensive rebounders in the country, high-pointing boards and using an array of spins and swim moves to throw aside opposing players, much like a linebacker does to get after a quarterback. Sharpe lacks notable touch, length, and vertical pop, which does limit him as a scorer, but he’s nonetheless a consistent finisher in transition and in the dunker spot.

But while his reputation as a garbage scorer and elite rebounder is based in truth, it’s an incomplete description of his offensive game, ignoring his gifts as a playmaker. Sharpe is truly a virtuoso with the ball in his hands, where his quick thinking and high feel for the game coalesce in elite playmaking for his position. His ability to scan the floor and find open teammates is invaluable to capitalizing on advantages, whether he’s acting as an offensive fulcrum or merely keeping the ball pinging. He is capable of making high-level reads for a big, throwing full-court bombs, leading cutters into tight windows, skipping the ball to the corners from the post, manipulating help defenders with his eyes and body angling, or making intelligent reads as the screener on dribble-handoffs and pick-and-rolls.

UNC is trotting out one of the nation’s top freshman classes, featuring a pair of talented guards in Caleb Love (No. 14) and RJ Davis (No. 47), and Sharpe has a real case for being the best passer of the bunch, positions be damned. He throws out some passes that most ball-handlers couldn’t dream of throwing, executing them with remarkable speed and accuracy.

His playmaking does lose some of its luster when projecting to the next level, where he’s not likely to receive as much attention from opposing defenses, considering his average post-game and underwhelming jump shot. This does make him a bit context-dependent in terms of maximizing his passing talents, but his snappy ball movement will be a ceiling-raiser for any offense that he is added to. And, when considering his surprising level of competence when handling the ball, he can be a real asset for a team that heavily incorporates dribble hand-off and pick-and-roll elements in their offensive scheme.

Just how real the handle is will be an interesting question to follow moving forward. While most centers should never be tasked with putting the ball on the deck, it’s a bit of a different story with Sharpe, who’s flashed real aptitude bringing the ball up the floor in transition and initiating the offense. He’s even broken out the occasional crossover, showing a real understanding of how to use a defender’s momentum against them, but such maneuvers are too loose and sloppy to be trusted in-game. It would behoove an NBA development staff to explore the limits of his handling ability through creation reps in the G-League since bigs who can initiate offense in the NBA are few and far between. He may not be such a player, but a smart organization should give due diligence just to make sure.

Day’Ron Sharpe’s overwhelming strength, high feel for the game, and astute decision-making permeate all aspects of his game, not being limited to one side of the ball. He was an interior force at the prep level, winning on the defensive end with intuitive positioning, prompt rotations, and impeccable timing. He doesn’t have notable length (7-foot- wingspan) and isn’t a quick-twitch leaper, but Sharpe nonetheless excelled as a high school rim-protector, whether he was stepping up from the weakside or chopping his steps to pin a shot in transition. Weaker bigs were no match against Sharpe in the post, where his activity and strength made it difficult for opponents to gain position or receive an entry pass. Montverde surrounded him with an assortment of elite wing defenders who absolutely made life easier for the young center, but the relationship was an intrinsically beneficial one, with him interior defense helping the Eagles morph into a defensive juggernaut.

Sharpe chose to finish his high school career at Montverde as a personal challenge, with the desire to play against the nation’s best athletes so that he could ready himself for the rigors of ACC basketball. Head coach Kevin Boyle took it upon himself to focus specifically on Sharpe’s mobility — Sharpe has always been mobile for a plodding, below-the-rim big, but improvement was still necessary — and his engagement on defense, particularly in the pick-and-roll. There was a noted effort in improving Sharpe’s foot speed (both east-west and north-south), willingness to get down in his stance, and his overall technical approach, and the work absolutely paid off major dividends throughout his senior year, as he played the best defense of his career.

He was a menace defending the pick-and-roll, excelling at the Milwaukee Bucks’ aggressive style of drop coverage, where he was responsible for playing up on the ball-handler while simultaneously denying both the pocket pass and lob pass. His hand placement and hand-eye coordination were stellar, swiping at the ball when exposed and knocking away passes with great timing and anticipation. He still needs work defending at and above the level of the screen, whether he’s showing or hedging, due to his top-heavy gait and struggles changing directions. Sharpe is a lot better moving laterally once he gets in his stance and has shown an ability to wall off drivers if he beats them to their spot, but he’ll need to continue working on his technique at UNC, a program that primarily hedges ball screens.

Sharpe is admittedly a flawed prospect, no matter how special his passing vision and defensive instincts may be. There is a real question over whether Sharpe is capable of scoring in the halfcourt against NBA defenders, due to his size — he may not be 6-foot-11, based on the fact that he was consistently listed at 6-foot-9 or 6-foot-10 on recruiting sites — and athleticism at the center position. He moves well for a center and does have a solid max vert, but it requires noticeable load time to reach it, meaning he’s not one to finish over players in the post. He’s made strides getting off of his feet quicker, but an NBA strength and conditioning staff will need to continue working on his leg strength, flexibility, and evening out his body dimensions. After all, he’s not getting drafted for his scoring, but he’ll still need to prove that his athletic gains can result in efficient scoring at the college level.

The biggest area of concern on the offensive end is his perimeter jumper, with much of the apprehension being rooted in his poor track record from the foul line. Sharpe converted on a mere 58.3 percent of his free throw attempts at the prep level (accounting for three seasons at South Central and one summer of AAU ball), a rate that doesn’t inspire much confidence in his ability to space the floor. It should be noted, however, that the 19-year-old has made real, substantial strides as a shooter in the last year-plus, with Boyle and Montverde’s development staff working on several tweaks to Sharpe’s shot mechanics. The set point was raised by a couple of inches, the arc has more of an upward motion (versus the previous pushing motion, like a shot put), and the wrist flexion isn’t as exaggerated. More work needs to be made, but the strides are encouraging, and his work ethic and current rate of development is more than encouraging.

Outside of USC’s Evan Mobley — a 7-footer with guard-like mobility and elite rim protection — and Real Madrid’s Usman Garuba — a defensive savant who earned Euroleague minutes as a teenager — there are few centers in the 2021 draft class that are worthy of a lottery selection, with the crop of big men being relatively shallow compared to the collection of guards and wings available next year.

Behind Mobley and Garuba is an amalgamation of long-limbed internationals and college upperclassmen vying for first-round consideration, including the likes of Ariel Hukporti, Ibou Dianko Badji, Oscar Tshiebwe, Trayce Jackson-Davis, and several others. North Carolina’s Day’Ron Sharpe finds himself in that jumbled grouping, but he shouldn’t for long, even if Roy Williams stubbornly keeps him on the bench as a freshman.

Bigs who set crushing screens, move with a purpose without the ball, keep the offense flowing with instant passing reads, facilitate on the short-roll, and hold down the fort as a rim protector and pick-and-roll defender have a real, valid place in the modern NBA, one that’s predicated on perimeter creation and accentuating the talents of these offensive initiators. Finding players who make life easier for your stars is a challenge that all NBA front offices are tackling.

Day’Ron Sharpe is capable of becoming such a player, an ideal complementary center, and should be viewed as a top-30 prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft as a result.