Undrafted wing Charles Cooke prepares for NBA opportunity with Pelicans

Every player wants to hear his name announced by Adam Silver or Mark Tatum on draft night, but when Charles Cooke went unselected June 22, it didn’t take long for NBA teams to start contacting him. After showing steady improvement during a four-year college career split between James Madison and Dayton, Cooke was considered a viable second-round option – NBADraft.net listed him 61st on its pre-draft Big Board, while CBS ranked him 64th. Sixty players are picked in the annual two-round draft.

“He was one of those guys everyone had on their radar, but it was such a deep draft, he kind of slipped through the cracks,” said New Orleans Director of Player Personnel David Booth, who followed Cooke’s college career closely. “He easily could’ve been drafted, depending on how teams valued him (in Round 2).”

“I was definitely hoping to be drafted. I knew I was listed on some (mock drafts),” Cooke said this week, inside the Ochsner Sports Performance Center. “When I wasn’t, it wasn’t a major disappointment. I mean, there was some of that feeling, but I knew I’d still have my opportunity and a chance to prove my worth.”

That officially came Aug. 2, when the Pelicans signed Cooke to a two-way G League contract. The Trenton, N.J., native played for Minnesota’s summer league team in Las Vegas, averaging 10.0 points in 20.3 minutes per game. At the NBA level, Cooke projects as a wing who’s a threat from long distance (39.8 and 39.6 three-point percentage in his two Dayton seasons, respectively) and uses his 6-foot-5, 196-pound frame to blanket opponents on the defensive end.

“I’m a scorer who can shoot (from outside) or get to the cup,” Cooke said, when asked to describe his game. “Definitely a defender and two-way guy who can really strap in and get a stop on defense. I can contain scorers at key points of a game to give your team a chance to go on a run. I think of myself as an athletic wing who can contribute on both ends.”

“His positional size is what can translate to the NBA,” Booth said. “I think defensively he can come in and guard today. He knows how to use his length, knows how to use his lateral quickness and has good strength. He can chase guys around screens.”

Cooke was a bit of an unheralded high-school prospect, with much of his interest from NCAA programs coming late, as he entered his senior year, partly because he only played one year in AAU. He played two seasons at James Madison, helping the Dukes win a First Four NCAA Tournament game as a freshman with a 15-point, six-rebound game vs. LIU-Brooklyn. As a junior with Dayton, the Flyers also reached March Madness, dropping an opening-round game to Syracuse, despite his 14 points.

Cooke wasn’t a confident perimeter shooter early in his college career, only attempting a total of 165 treys over two seasons at James Madison. That number jumped to 272 after he transferred to Dayton, as did his accuracy (he shot 30.9 percent on treys at JMU).

“His upside is what intrigued us,” Booth said. “His ceiling hasn’t been reached. His first year with James Madison wasn’t great shooting-wise, but that and his game has gotten better. He was on the rise at Dayton. He improved every year, especially defensively from his junior year. He showed good defensive technique and tenacity at that end.”

The 23-year-old said his workout regimen at Dayton consisted of taking between 17,000 and 20,000 shots each summer, part of Flyers Coach Archie Miller’s extensive emphasis on that skill.

“The fundamentals of (Miller’s) game plan were either to shoot layups or threes, which is the way the (NBA) is going now,” Cooke said. “I just got comfortable with that three-point line, due to getting so many reps in at Dayton.”

Cooke participated in the Pelicans’ voluntary workouts in Lexington last month and has been in Metairie recently to continue preparing for his pro debut.
“I’ve been working on tightening my ballhandling, learning the fundamentals of where to be (on the court) at specific times,” he said of adjusting to this level. “Footwork, backpedaling into threes, creating space, making open shots. A lot of little things.”

The rookie is also trying to soak up as much advice and pointers as he can from Pelicans veterans. New Orleans has four starters who’ve appeared in the All-Star Game at least once.

“I’m picking their brain as far as how they approached coming into the NBA,” Cooke said. “Also their mindset going into practices and games. I try to pick (Rajon) Rondo’s brain as far as him being a floor general, what he thinks and what he sees on the floor. The mental aspect is a big focus for me, as much as anything. Because sometimes the mental part is going to make or break you, and that’s no matter what (occupation) you’re doing.”

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