LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They all wanted a picture with Jeff Sheppard.
As the Most Outstanding Player of the 1998 NCAA tournament shuffled toward the KFC YUM! Center for his alma mater’s matchup at Louisville, dozens of Kentucky fans pulled him aside and held up their phones.
“Hey, look at that, son!” one father told his child after he snapped a selfie. “You just took a picture with Reed Sheppard‘s dad!”
Jeff is one of the program’s most popular former players. But his son is now the biggest star of Kentucky basketball’s royal family — which also includes his mother, former Kentucky women’s basketball star Stacey Reed Sheppard, who is No. 2 in career steals (309) for the Wildcats and a 1994 All-SEC first-teamer.
When your father is a two-time national champion and your mother is one of the greatest women’s players of all time, it is not easy to write your own story. This season, however, Sheppard has found a way to do just that.
Despite coming off the bench, Sheppard’s efficiency and production — 12.6 points, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game, 54.1% shooting from the 3-point line — have made him key to Kentucky’s aim to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2015. He has also risen to become a projected first-round pick in the NBA draft, should he decide to turn pro.
It wasn’t always that way. Early in his high school career, Sheppard didn’t earn a national ranking or widespread praise. There were no guarantees he’d ever mature into a player worthy of a scholarship from a blue-chip school. By the time he was a junior in high school, however, Sheppard had grown into a nationally ranked recruit with offers from schools including Arizona State and Indiana. But when Kentucky called and offered him a scholarship, he knew his future was with the Wildcats. His parents had hoped he’d pick their alma mater, but watched from a distance because they didn’t want to influence his final choice.
“There is nothing better than to be Reed’s dad right now, so it’s been a lot of fun,” said Jeff Sheppard, who won national titles at Kentucky in 1996 and 1998. “We just wanted him to go through his process and make a decision that was best for him. To say we didn’t want this to happen would be a lie. We didn’t know. But to see it all play out right now has been very special.”
The Sheppards’ story isn’t singular. And prepare to feel old.
Those 1990s and early 2000s college basketball stars you grew up watching and admired? Many of their children — including Reed’s teammate D.J. Wagner, the son of former Memphis star Dajuan Wagner — are Division I standouts now. The weight of the parents’ accomplishments can increase the pressure on their children who play the game. Yet, with their parents’ support, the offspring have managed to write their own scripts.
“There was more pressure earlier in my high school career with, ‘Is he going to be good enough to go to Kentucky?'” Reed Sheppard said. “That was more pressure than just going out here and playing and playing free and having fun with my teammates at the school I dreamed of playing at.”
For Jameer Nelson Jr., a trip to work with his dad always started with an omelet.
His father, Jameer Nelson Sr., played for the Orlando Magic (2004-2014) following a standout career at Saint Joseph’s, where he won the 2004 Wooden Award and led his team to a 30-2 record in 2003-04.
Whenever Nelson Jr. visited the Magic’s facility with his father, he’d ask the team’s chef for his favorite meal, and then he would run to the court and shoot layups with his dad and his dad’s NBA teammates.
“I was young and I was spoiled,” said Nelson, who is averaging 11.1 PPG and 3.4 APG for TCU this season after starring at George Washington and Delaware. “It was just really regular for my dad to take me with him to work, just like any dad would.”
But when Nelson began pursuing a career in basketball, it wasn’t a natural fit. He had his father’s name but not his skills.
“At first it was a little annoying because I wasn’t that good,” Nelson said. “It was kind of overwhelming.”
Fortunately, he never believed he had to be like his father as his love for the game blossomed. Plus, his dad told him he had to follow only one rule: have fun.
“My mom prepared me and told me, ‘You’re always going to have his name,'” Nelson said of the pressure to live up to his dad’s legacy. “I feel like I’m always going to be compared to my dad. But it’s good to have someone like that in my corner.”
Nelson’s teammate Chuck O’Bannon Jr. remembers the framed magazine covers featuring his father, Charles O’Bannon, and his uncle Ed O’Bannon, both former UCLA stars who won a national title in 1995, all over the walls of his grandmother’s house. He also remembers going to games with them and noticing the way people treated them with respect and admiration.
He felt like he was famous too when he was with them, but once he joined the AAU circuit he heard the chatter about how much he wasn’t like them. His father had to remind him he had to follow his own path.
“He taught me to stay levelheaded and to never get too high or too low,” said O’Bannon, who is averaging 6.4 PPG for the Horned Frogs.
Chuck O’Bannon Jr. gets the and-1 to fall
Chuck O’Bannon Jr. gets the and-1 to fall
New Mexico‘s Jamal Mashburn Jr. was just a toddler when his father — Jamal Mashburn Sr., a former college basketball All-American at Kentucky and the fourth pick in the 1993 NBA draft — played in his first and only NBA All-Star Game in 2003. It was also Michael Jordan’s final All-Star Game.
From the pictures taken that day, he knows he met Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and other future Basketball Hall of Famers. But he really only remembers towering over the room when he met Yao Ming.
“I don’t remember anything besides meeting Yao Ming,” said Mashburn, who is averaging 15.9 PPG this season for the Lobos. “He stood out to me. He’s a very large human being and he picked me up.”
Those memories were the norm in his childhood and they made him the popular kid on the playground. But when his love for hoops began to grow, his father told him to develop a skill set that would work for him instead of trying to mimic his dad. It was sound advice Mashburn still follows.
“I always wanted to make a name for myself,” he said. “I knew I just couldn’t listen to the noise. My father is in my corner, he’s my mentor. But it was hard in high school and AAU basketball. It was hard not to listen to comparisons. But my parents raised me to block that out.”
He and his father are different in a multitude of ways. Mashburn is 6-foot-2, not 6-8 like his father, for one. His dad used his size to get into the lane and score on post-ups or via his strong midrange game. Mashburn uses his speed to create space to elude defenders and room to score. Still, they share one trait on the court.
“We both shoot the ball well,” Mashburn said. “We’re a family of bucket-getters.”
D.J. Wagner and his father have qualities in common, too.
D.J. was at one point the No. 1 recruit in America in the 2023 class. Both Louisville, which hired his grandfather Milt Wagner as an assistant coach, and Kentucky pursued him before he signed with the Wildcats.
Dajuan too had been recruited by Louisville, Kentucky and other early 2000s powerhouses following a stellar prep career, which included a 100-point outing. He ultimately signed to play for John Calipari, who was then at Memphis. Like his son, Dajuan was a McDonald’s All-American with NBA dreams when he reached campus. His lone collegiate season ended with a trip to the NIT in 2002 before he entered the NBA draft and became a first-round pick.
D.J. started the 2023-24 campaign amid buzz that he could crack the NBA draft lottery, just like his father had done more than 20 years ago. And he has enjoyed both praise and scrutiny through a freshman year with growing pains. His father’s support has been crucial through the obstacles.
“My dad showed me everything I know about the game, the ins and outs of the game,” he said. “He’s still teaching me. He calls me every day. Even the ups and downs, he prepared me for that. He told me, ‘It won’t always be easy.'”
Reeves, Wildcats leap to big lead in win vs. Louisville
Antonio Reeves scores 30 points while Tre Mitchell and Reed Sheppard post double-doubles to lead No. 9 Kentucky to victory over the Cardinals 95-76.
The requests for selfies and conversations continued when Jeff and Stacey finally stepped into the arena.
But Reed Sheppard’s parents have a rule. Once the game begins, they don’t like to talk to anyone. They’re focused on the court.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Stacey said. “I always warn the person next to me that I’m playing defense with my legs. I tell them, ‘I’m going to be kneeing you, because I’m playing defense.’ Trying to help them out. But it’s fun. We’re having a blast.”
Reed Sheppard always dreamed of being a star at Kentucky.
After he became a high school star in the state, however, critics wondered if he had the talent to play for the Wildcats. He didn’t receive a scholarship offer from Calipari — who praised Sheppard’s “competitive energy” after he signed — until the summer before his junior year. And still, many wondered if Sheppard, who was originally 38th in ESPN’s 2023 recruiting rankings, would crack the rotation of a roster filled with five-star prospects. At 6-2, he lacked the explosive game that had sent so many of Calipari’s former freshmen to the NBA.
But his parents had taught him well. Both his father and mother molded elements of his game, tangible and intangible, that have helped make Sheppard an All-American candidate this season and a legit NBA prospect.
“It was a combination of both,” Sheppard said. “Me and my dad have always worked out together. We still go to the gym. I’ll call him if something feels off and we’ll come in and we’ll shoot for 30 minutes and go back to the basics.
“Mom, we didn’t go to the gym as much but she was always wanting me to play hard. She’d say, ‘Never let anyone outwork you when you’re on the floor. If you’re playing, you’re going to play as hard as you can.'”
Every time he touched the ball in the eventual win against the Cardinals that night, the crowd — filled with Kentucky fans — screamed “Reeeeeeddddd!!!” A cry you’ll hear at many Kentucky games.
He’s not only the team’s most popular player, but he has also made the case that he’s one of its best, too. He recorded 21 points (5-for-9 from the 3-point line), 9 rebounds and 3 steals in a win over Miami. In just 25 minutes of action, he finished with 11 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in a win over North Carolina. Per EvanMiya.com’s BPR metric, which measures a player’s overall impact on his team when he’s on the court, Sheppard is the sixth-most valuable player in America. He’s ranked behind only Zach Edey, Jamal Shead, Donovan Clingan, Braden Smith and Kyle Filipowski.
Calipari’s Kentucky teams haven’t made more than 37% of their 3-point attempts in a season since the national championship-winning 2011-12 campaign. This season’s group entered Thursday with a 39.8% clip from beyond the arc. Per the numbers, Sheppard is the greatest shooter Calipari has ever coached at Kentucky. His 3-point shooting is a critical component of Kentucky’s improved shooting (the Wildcats shot just 34.7% from 3 last season).
For Calipari, adding Sheppard and Wagner to the roster is not only an extension of their families’ basketball legacies, it has also made Kentucky a valid national title contender.
“They’ve been terrific,” Calipari said. “I think they both have a will to win. I think they both have some dog in them. … The game [D.J.] didn’t play [Dec. 2 against UNC Wilmington], we lost. That tells you something. He wills you to win. His dad was the same way and I imagine his grandfather was the same way. It’s in his DNA. And Reed just, whatever you ask him to do, he just plays basketball. And he doesn’t care who scores.”
On that court in Louisville, it was clear that Reed Sheppard had — early in his collegiate career — made a name for himself.
“I look up to mom and dad a lot,” he said. “They were both really, really good players. When I was younger, I was Jeff and Stacey’s son. That was really cool to me because I knew how good they were and I knew how much people looked up to them whenever we went places. But now, carving my own path and making my own waves is really cool for me.”