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Shaedon Sharpe’s ‘mind-blowing’ journey to NBA dunk contest

Shaedon Sharpe’s father usually jumps out of his seat while watching his son play for the Portland Trail Blazers this season while his mother stares in amazement and asks herself: “Did he really just do that?”

That’s the common reaction for most NBA fans watching the London, Ont. native in his first season in the NBA. Sharpe’s highlight reel dunks have some fans — and even Blazers star Damian Lillard — using his name in the same sentence as Vince Carter. Now he’s set to join the NBA slam dunk contest at next month’s all-star weekend.

The Star confirmed a report by The Athletic that Sharpe has committed to the event and despite the other challengers not being named yet, he’s considered the favourite to take home the crown as his high-flying dunks have stunned the league on a nightly basis in his rookie season.

“It’s the anticipation of him doing something so spectacular in the game, you just never know what you’re going to get and it’s always something different,” said his father, Robert Sharpe.

Before the Canadian takes centre stage in the dunk contest, Sharpe is set to make his basketball return in the same city his parents used to drive five-hour round trips in their 2006 Pontiac Montana minivan from London to get him to basketball practice in Toronto.

“That was our life, travelling on the 401 for basketball. And now we’re going to be travelling on the 401 for an NBA game that he’s going to be playing in. It’s just mind-blowing,” said Robert.

The family told the Star they’re expecting at least 50 friends and family to be in attendance at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday.

“It’s really going to be a homecoming,” said his mother, Julia Sharpe.

Entering his rookie season, the six-foot-six shooting guard hadn’t played competitive basketball for almost an entire year. He didn’t play college basketball at Kentucky as he decided to instead put his name forward for the NBA draft and he also had his senior year of high school cut short.

There was skepticism around the 19-year-old prospect but through his first 36 games in the NBA, he’s shown how gifted he is as an athlete and the shotmaking ability that made him a top-10 pick. And he’s doing it while playing against seasoned pros as Portland competes for a playoff spot in the western conference.

His introduction to the league included a pre-season game against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers in early October.

“The summer before he was playing against Bronny James and this year he’s playing against LeBron James. When you think about it that way, it’s unreal,” said Julia.

"The summer before he was playing against Bronny James and this year he's playing against LeBron James," said Shaedon Sharpe's mother, Julia.

Shaedon used to collect NBA action figures as a kid. Now they sit on his nightstand in his London home while he’s playing against those same action figures in NBA arenas.

Coming off the bench for Portland, Sharpe is averaging 7.9 points and 2.5 rebounds on 47.7 per cent shooting from the field in 19.7 minutes per game as of Jan. 6. He’s not playing as many minutes as most first-year lottery picks but has the rare opportunity to learn from an established star in Damian Lillard.

That relationship between Sharpe and Lillard ties back to his first pre-draft workout in Portland. Sharpe sent a text to his parents of a photo making the rounds on social media of Lillard staring at him from the sidelines while he was taking a shot.

“I don’t even know if he left the gym yet. But he had called us and the sound in his voice when he was talking about the workout and just being at Portland, the atmosphere,” said Julia. “I don’t know if he talked to Dame or just having him on the sideline watching the workout, he had fallen in love with this team.”

Julia remembers watching a game on TV earlier this season when Lillard called Sharpe over and put his arm around him while giving him advice.

“After the game, we’re like ‘Shaedon, what happened? We saw Dame pull you over and say something to you,’” said Julia. Lillard had given him some direction for when play started up again. When it did, Sharpe scored six straight points.

Shaedon Sharpe has the rare opportunity to learn from an established star in Damian Lillard.

For Dave Sewell, Sharpe’s personal trainer and a local basketball coach in London, seeing him reach this level wasn’t a surprise.

Sewell was with Sharpe in Chicago during the NBA draft combine helping him work out and also spent time down in Kentucky training him. Watching him get picked by Portland and have the chance to learn from a superstar like Lillard is what excited him.

“I think it’s great because he’s getting to play with some vets. Maybe he doesn’t get to play as much as some people would like. But, I think that learning is going to be huge for him,” said Sewell.

It gets even more surreal for Sharpe’s father when people talk about his son and Carter in the same breath. He grew up a fan of the Raptors legend since his North Carolina days and it leaves him in awe whenever he hears the comparisons.

There was skepticism around the 19-year-old prospect but through his first 36 games in the NBA, Shaedon Sharpe has shown how gifted he is as an athlete.

With all-star weekend set in Utah next month, Sharpe’s parents said watching their son participate in the dunk contest will be out of the ordinary. He’s never competed in dunk competitions growing up as he doesn’t like to draw too much attention to himself.

“He’s certainly made a case for being in the dunk contest,” said Julia. “The craziest thing now is hearing our son’s name during these highlights and during these top ten plays … Having Vince Carter recognize Shaedon, that’s so unbelievable.”

For Raptors fans in attendance on Sunday, another highlight reel play from Sharpe could be on the menu. And if that happens, an entire section filled by Sharpe’s family and friends will be able to see it. They’ll be the ones decked out in red, white and black — the Blazers have a similar colour scheme as the Raptors — but cheering against the home crowd.

“This will be the only game that I don’t root for Toronto,” laughed Robert.

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