(This is a complete write-through of the earlier story Varsity Letters broke on UBC’s signing of former Kelowna Owls basketball star Grant Shephard. There’s more quotes from all concerned including Shephard’s former high school coach Harry Parmar, and additional reporting on the impact his arrival could have on the program)
VANCOUVER — Even after an inglorious end to its 2016-17 U Sports men’s basketball season last month, it’s time to put the UBC Thunderbirds right back in the U Sports national championship conversation.
A whirlwind week of planning and finger-crossing came to a happy conclusion Friday as longtime head coach Kevin Hanson announced that 2016 B.C. Quad A MVP forward Grant Shephard would join the program in the fall after playing this past season at Florida’s prestigious Montverde Prep.
“It’s a great present to receive on Easter weekend,” said Hanson.
The 6-foot-10 Shephard, who led the Kelowna Owls to the 2016 title as an 11th grader, had great interest from throughout the NCAA Div. 1 basketball world, yet he told Hanson he would be wearing blue-and-gold following a lunch meeting with his new head coach on Friday.
“That was the longest 15 minutes of my life,” Hanson said as the family huddled before making a final decision.
One night earlier, Shephard had made his official visit to the school, one in which he, his parents, Hanson and ‘Birds assistant Spencer McKay visited with UBC president Santa J. Ono.
“I got a very good feeling early in the visit from his parents (Leanne and Trevor),” said Hanson, “but this has still all happened very quickly.
“I really don’t have the words to talk about this,” added Hanson, whose successful recruitment of Shephard may compare only to the football team’s recruitment of Penn State transfer quarterback Michael O’Connor a few seasons back. “Grant is the epitome of a recruit. He’s a straight A student, he has the size, he has a love of family and he has a hunger to want to just keep getting better and better. For us, this is a huge coup. Grant’s not a diamond in the rough. He’s already a diamond.”
“I was stressing out a bit about the Div. 1 offers I was getting from the east coast,” said Shephard. “The offers were good but they just didn’t excite me. As soon as I started to think about UBC, I got that excited feeling and I would lay awake at night thinking about it.
Just how good was the lineup that Shephard was able to crack this season down south?
Montverde Prep, which has produced a host of NBA plyers including current Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons and L.A. Laker D’Angelo Russell, advanced all the way to the final of the Dick’s Sporting Goods U.S. national high school championships where it lost to Indiana’s La Lumiere in a contest televised nationally in the U.S. on ESPN.
Shephard’s high school coach minced no words when asked what the multi-skilled big man could bring from the moment he stepped on the floor at venerable War Memorial Gymnasium.
“I think he will have a huge impact,” Kelowna Owls head coach Harry Parmar said by phone. “He will be the one to take them over the top and give Coach Hanson a (national championship) ring.”
Shephard’s arrival at UBC means the Thunderbirds will feature the B.C. Quad A MVPs from both the 2015 and ’16 seasons. Yale Secondary point guard Jauquin Bennett-Boire, who red-shirted this past season on a transfer from Saskatchewan, was named MVP in 2015.
With Bennett-Boire set to become a backcourt leader next season, and with U Sports national scoring leader Conor Morgan leaning towards a return for his senior season in the front court, the addition of Shephard gives Hanson a roster which might be the most talented he’s ever put on the court.
Hanson also recently announced the signing of a pair of prime 6-foot-4 recruits in Grant Audu of Thornlea High in Thornhill, Ont., and Anthony McNish of Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix. Big guards Cameron Morris of Burnaby’s St. Thomas More and Brian Wallack of Surrey’s Semiahmoo Secondary are also a big part of Hanson’s blue-chip recruiting class.
Shephard could see the care that went into his visit, capped by the fact that he became the first men’s basketball recruit to ever gain an audience with the school’s president.
“I was blown away by amount of dedication they put into this one visit,” said Shephard. “I was so honoured to have the president want to meet with me. That meant a whole lot.”
Shephard’s arrival means a reunion with his old high school running mate Parker Simson, an injury redshirt guard this past season who will begin his freshman season with both the basketball and football teams next season.
“We were together all day yesterday, just spending time together and catching up,” said Shephard, who turned 18 one week ago. “I was also able to scrimmage with the guys, and working together, it all felt really normal.”
Discussion is sure to start soon as to whether Shephard’s reunion with Simson might lead to current Kelowna Owls’ senior guard Mason Bourcier developing interest in the ‘Birds. Insiders suggest that if Bourcier doesn’t go to the NCAA Div. 1 ranks that the Point Grey campus could be a potential landing point.
That trio formed a core of an Owls 2015-16 team which was one of the most dominant in B.C. high school history, culminating with a championship game win over Tamanawis and an undefeated season against B.C. competition.
There is no question that when Shephard left Kelowna this season for his Grade 12 year at Montverde that he was looking towards an NCAA Div. 1 future.
Yet while several schools had contacted him, a text he received from Hanson about a month ago changed the way he began to think about his future.
“It definitely changed,” Shephard said of how the Montverde season allowed him to gain a better feel of exactly what he was looking for at the collegiate level. “It put a focus on what I was looking for out of a college. I want to go pro but I also want to get a good degree and that is important to me, and UBC is one of the best in the world.”
Certainly that mesh of athletics and academics is present at UBC, and it comes without the same kinds of question marks that Shephard would face playing in the U.S. system.
“I wanted to find the place, where with my abilities, that I am used best,” said Shephard, an inside-outside threat who carries 6-foot-10 like a guard carries 6-foot-2. “What excites me is that I feel I can bring good things to the team right away. I can help lead them with the experiences that I have had in the U.S. and that together, we can surprise a lot of people.”
But Shephard could also stand for a lot more over his career at UBC.
B.C. has struggled to keep its best players in the province for their post-secondary careers, especially its bigger players. Shephard has a chance to change that thinking.
“He has already been identified as one of the best players in his age group in North America,” said Hanson who will have Shephard for five seasons. “He is a special player with special size and athleticism, and the upside he brings to the table is amazing.
“Getting a player of that calibre certainly bodes well for our program,” Hanson continued, “but it’s also wonderful to see and athlete and player like that stay at home, stay in B.C. We talked about it, that you just need a few to stay at hometown to convince others across the country that U Sports is very good.”
Shephard, who has already experienced age group competition with the national program, has for the past two seasons been the only B.C. player selected to take part in the annual BioSteel All-Canadian national showcase game played back east.
A top student in the classroom, Shephard said he will focus on a sciences-based curriculum.
“Something in the sciences, biology or kinesiology, maybe a business degree,” Shephard said when asked about his academic direction.
The comforts of being close to home were important to Shephard, and he got some unexpected news Friday when he learned that his older sister Danae, a 6-foot-2 volleyball standout, had decided to transfer from Capilano University in North Vancouver to join the roster of the defending U Sport national women’s champions.
“We’re like best friends,” Shephard said of he and his sister. “I was kind of thinking seriously about UBC before she got here so that was crazy news. It all came together and it pointed me in this direction.”
Makes you almost think that perhaps the biggest signing in UBC men’s basketball was simply meant to be.
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