The evolving front-court chemistry between second-year Grant Shephard (left) and freshman international Jonah Morrison will be one of the most curious plot lines to follow as the Thunderbirds open their 2018-19 season at home Friday with the opening game of UBC Invitational at War Gym. (Grant Shephard photo by Richard Lam/UBC athletics; Jonah Morrison photo property of FIBA Basketball)
Feature University Men's Basketball

As UBC men’s basketball hosts Laval to open new season, ‘Birds new pairing of Shephard & Morrison is one to watch

VANCOUVER — Mason Bourcier plus incoming star transfers Jadon Cohee and Manroop Clair has all the makings of as vintage a UBC Thunderbirds back court as you could imagine.

And although a hamstring injury to Clair, the former Burnaby South gunner, will keep him out of action at this weekend’s four-team UBC Invitational, you don’t need an alchemist to tell you that the respective talents of the trio will once again make the ‘Birds a formidable foe in the Canada West.

The front court?

As UBC prepares to tip off Friday (7 p.m.) against the Laval Rouge et Or, and then Saturday (6 p.m.) against the Windsor Lancers (both games at War Memorial Gymnasium), it’s the one area best studied with magnifying glass and notepad.

UBC will start 6-foot-11 second-year man Grant Shephard, and likely 6-foot-8 fifth-year senior Patrick Simon.

And while 6-foot-4 swingman Grant Audu figures prominently, and 6-foot-9 freshman Lincoln Rosebush learns the ropes, the big focus will be on just how quickly 6-foot-8 Jonah Morrison, a freshman and member of the Taiwan U-18 national team, adjusts to what could be a prime time role in the Canada West.

As a refresher, we let you know back in August that Morrison, the Asian international, had already landed in Vancouver and was just beginning informal workouts inside War.

Fast forward about seven weeks as the countdown to the ‘Birds season opener reaches a day and counting, and the initial excitement emanating from within the UBC men’s program has not abated.

“I stopped practice on Tuesday and I asked the guys ‘How many of you like playing with Jonah,” relayed UBC head coach Kevin Hanson to Varsity Letters on Thursday. “Every single guys hand went up. I just said ‘I love it.’ Everyone wants to play with this guy because he is so unselfish, he makes the right play and he thinks team first. This is just his first year, and I am going ‘Wow.’”

From the bread-and-butter of the box score alone, we already know Morrison to be a skilled energy player with a passion for cleaning glass at both ends.

Yet within the context of a guard-oriented Taiwanese U-18 national team, Morrison was not allowed to fully spread his wings and fly.

“Suddenly, he is feeling freedom,” says Hanson of what has been transpiring in the gym over the past near two months. “I saw him on video (at the FIBA 3×3 World Cup) this year and he’s shooting threes, and he’s shooting them super well. He is relentless on the glass and he’s hard to guard because he is so active. You can tell that he’s received great coaching.”

And so while the season’s flow will dictate which of UBC’s frontcourt player combinations are ultimately most effective, War’s most hard-core fans will want to see early just what kind of chemistry the second-year Shepard has with the first-year Morrison.

As much as Cohee-Clair bring the big-time back-court confidence honed through their collective NCAA Div. 1 experience, the evolution of Shephard-Morrison seems just as enticing in its own way.

And believe it or not, for as wonderfully talented as Shephard is, his path through a number of blue-chip programs — at Montverde Prep, the Canadian national team and as a UBC freshman —has meant learning the ropes and coming off the bench.

And so now, as Hanson correctly says, Shephard is back in the role of starter for the first time since his Grade 11 year at Kelowna, where he helped lead the Owls to the 2016 B.C. senior varsity AAAA title.

Last season, Shephard came off the bench in all 20 UBC games, shooting 57 per cent from the field and averaging 8.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 15.4 minutes per game.

“I think he has an all-new level of confidence, but I have been talking to him about not being complacent now, just because he is starting,” said Hanson of Shephard, who last season played as a centre behind now-graduated Conor Morgan.

“Grant’s skill level is incredible,” said Hanson, “and now we are working on his ball-handling and the kind of stuff that, further down the road can make him a three if he can also defend there. He hasn’t even touched the level he can be and I hope he understands how good he can become.”

Make no mistake, Hanson loves what former Archbishop Carney and SFU Clan player Simon brings.

In the best shape of his career and knocking down shots with consistency through the fall, Simon is the team’s lone senior.

As well, although undersized, the 6-foot-4, second-year Audu brings a strong presence to the group and defines himself defensively with his footwork and athleticism.

“There is so much pick-and-roll in the FIBA game, so Grant gives us that option of being able to switch easier,” reminds Hanson of the player who will hold a big role in small-ball formations. “The athleticism he brings allows us to do some different tactical things.”

As well, Rosebush is a multi-talented player, who will take advantage of his opportunity to get up to speed with the pace of the U Sports game.


He will likely start the season coming off the bench, yet the hope is that he can hold his own once conference play begins and slowly begin to work some chemistry with the entire group.

“It’s really a sign of the times,” Hanson says, when asked about the potential of the team’s dynamic young pair to grow together in blue and gold. “Here’s two stretch-fours, one 6-8 and the other 6-11. Two guys who can shoot the three, two guys who have played a lot of FIBA basketball and two guys who have been identified by their national teams. That is exciting.”

Hanson admits to the flip side.

“They are also not used to defending threes or stretch fours on other teams,” he said of a pair who have been brought up largely as centres. “But they will be given their repetitions. But they are just puppies, just cubs in their development as players and I am thrilled to get them at the start of their careers.”

BIRD BITS — Conference rival UNBC Timberwolves of Prince George will also take part in the UBC Invitational. The T-Wolves will play Windsor on Friday at 5 p.m., then follow Saturday with a 4 p.m. game against Laval. 

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