Josh Sharkey (above) set Samford's single-season steals record as a freshman, despite playing a reserve role. (Photo courtesy Samford Athletics)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season,click here.)
When Josh Sharkey first got to school at Samford University, located in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, the biggest issue wasn’t being nearly 900 miles away by car. It wasn’t adjusting to college life, or the speed of Division I practices, that bothered the Archbishop Carroll product most.
It was the music.
“I hated the Southern music,” he said, mentioning Memphis-based rappers like Boosie Badazz, Moneybagg Yo and Young Dolph, among others, that his Bulldog teammates favored but he found displeasing. “I’ve been trying to get them onto the Meek Mill wave, but they were hating on him.”
While the rest of the team might not have loved the sounds of Philly’s favorite hip-hop artist, they certainly couldn’t complain about the rookie guard.
In his first year at Samford, Sharkey played a key role off the bench as the Bulldogs won 20 games under third-year head coach Scott Padgett, equalling the most the program had won in any single season since winning 21 in 1999-2000, the last time they went to the NCAA Tournament.
Sharkey started two games but came off the bench in the other 34 games, averaging 8.2 ppg and 4.2 apg in 22.5 mpg, backing up (and sometimes playing alongside) junior point guard Christen Cunningham (11.4 ppg, 6.3 apg). Most impressively, the speedy 5-foot-10, 165-pound point guard known for his defensive abilities at Carroll set the school’s single-season steals record (71), including as many as seven in one game.
“He got by on a lot of talent, the fact that he’s so quick and he can get in the lane and make quick decisions and pressure the ball and pick somebody’s pocket, a lot of that’s on sheer talent,” said Padgett, who played 448 games over eight NBA seasons from 1999-2007. “I would expect him to have a huge year this year because now he kind of knows what to do and what to expect with our system.
“I think he had a really good freshman year, I think the big thing for him is take it to another level this year with his knowledge of our system and then just consistency.”
While Padgett said he worries that many college student-athletes go home and relax their workout regimen over the summer, he didn’t have any such issues when it came to Sharkey.
That’s because Sharkey spent the entire summer back in Philadelphia working closely with his cousin, former St. Joe’s star and 14th-year pro Jameer Nelson.
Nelson, who is Sharkey’s mother’s first cousin -- her dad and Jameer’s dad are brothers -- has been Sharkey’s basketball idol for the 20-year-old’s entire life, from tearing up Hawk Hill when Sharkey was a young child through his impressive NBA career.
As he’s grown older, Sharkey has come to appreciate more and more the opportunity he has to learn from one of the most successful professional basketball players to come out of the region in the last quarter-century.
“When I was little, it was so cool that Jameer Nelson’s my cousin -- he’s in the NBA, a Philly legend,” Sharkey said. “Now that I’m in college, I get to see his lifestyle and how he works and how he carries himself as a professional. Not even just the basketball side of it, how he carries himself as a person and how he is as a father with his kids and his wife and his family. I try to take different things from him, and he’s helped me a lot throughout my life.”
Padgett and Nelson were never teammates in the NBA, though their careers did overlap by several seasons. Padgett said the two knew each other from being amongst that fraternity, and now keep in touch throughout the year about Sharkey and his progress.
Over the summer, regular phone calls between the two made sure Sharkey’s workouts were as specifically tailored as possible towards helping him be a better sophomore.
“Jameer’s going to understand what I talk about, these are the things he needs to work on,” Padgett said. “We run a lot of pick-and-roll stuff, for him to understand the reads out of the pick-and-roll depending on how the defense is guarding. Him being able to work on his jump shot, which Jameer has always been a good shooter, I think Jameer helped him with.”
The outside shot was clearly a focal point of Sharkey’s offseason; both coach and player brought it up numerous times. As a freshman, he made just 21.7 percent (10-of-46) from 3-point range, though even with defenses playing off him he was able to make over 46 percent of his 2-point shots and led the team in free-throw attempts (164), making a solid 72 percent from the line.
Hitting more often from deep could make his drive-and-dish abilities even more dangerous to Big South defenses.
“(Sharkey) was smart -- he didn’t shoot a bunch of (3s), he was struggling with it and he didn’t shoot a bunch of them,” Padgett said. “I think wherever he was last year, which was probably in the ‘poor’ category from the 3, I think he’s got himself up to where you would put him in that ‘average’ category, and I think by the time he leaves he’s going to be a very good shooter.
“If he’s got a consistent jump shot where he can be a 35-plus, 36, 37-plus percent 3-point shooter, I don’t know how you guard him because he’s a jet,” he added. “If you have to be within arm’s length distance of (Sharkey), I don’t know how you guard him because he’s so fast.”
In addition to his shooting, Sharkey said he and Nelson watched film and worked on trying to get him to slow down at certain times, as well as the mental aspect of basketball: “if you have a bad game, you can’t get too low, you have a pretty good game, can’t get too high,” Sharkey said. “Got to stay level-headed.”
The plan for Sharkey this season is to play basically a better version of his role last year, backing up the now-senior Cunningham as the Bulldogs have their eyes set on a Big South championship.
Next offseason will be just as important; in 2018-19, the ball will be in Sharkey’s hands for 30-plus minutes per contest.
And by then, he and his teammates might even enjoy the same music.
“They’re starting to like (Meek) a little bit more now,” Sharkey admitted of his teammates, “and they got me liking (Southern rap) a little bit more this year.”