1-on-1: Jevohn Shepherd talks growth of Canadian basketball, his new role as Ottawa BlackJacks GM

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Jevohn Shepherd is ready for the next chapter in his life, but it took a long time for him to get here. Shepherd spent the bulk of his playing career in Europe, which included stints in Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Belgium. It helped him take in different cultures and grow as a basketball player. But when it came time to retire, and come home, it was a decision he felt was long overdue.

“I was, in a sense, just tired, fatigued, and I think it makes that decision a lot easier because you’ve already exhausted everything that you could in terms of playing,” Shepherd said in an exclusive interview with On Point Basketball. “Physically, I probably could’ve played another five years easily – but it was more, the challenges weren’t the same.”

However, he is grateful for the experience that came from playing in Europe, saying that it gave him the chance to learn the game from many different philosophies of basketball. All the while, getting that time away and dealing with adversities on his own made him mentally tougher.

Not long after retiring, Shepherd made a seamless transition to broadcasting. He is currently an analyst for the Raptors 905. He has also carved out a role at CBC Sports, and ran point during their coverage of the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s (CEBL) Summer Series tournament this past year. So, how did he step into that role so easily?

“It was easy because that, for me, was another challenge. I had reached a ceiling of where I was going to as a player, and now I got to step into the studio and deliver everything I’ve learned and analyze everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve done for the past 11 years. But then, you know, the exciting part to that was now I was learning.”

Crucially for Shepherd, he says he can tap into his experiences to deliver pinpoint analysis to the viewers.

“I’m able to look at the game as a player and now from a front office position where a lot of decisions are made and so forth that the general fan may not acknowledge or understand. Just being fortunate enough to speak on both sides of that going forward is going to pay dividends for me and I’m excited about it.

“There’s so many different ways to look at the game, so many different perspectives, and now you get to pool all that together.”

That front office position he is referring to is, of course, his new job as the general manager of the Ottawa BlackJacks. Although the CEBL started up in 2019, this year was the BlackJacks’ inaugural season. It was a hugely successful season for them, as they went 4-4 in the Summer Series while fielding an all-Canadian roster.

Shepherd lauded the way the roster was put together, and that seeing an all-Canadian roster is a great way to delve into the community and demonstrate to the kids that being professional is an achievable goal for them.

He also praised the CEBL as a whole for giving Canadian coaches experience at the professional level, which they would’ve never had before. It’s been a tremendous leap for basketball in this country to go from having one professional team to now having a domestic league, and it could incentivize some players to stay in Canada rather than go abroad just to further their game. And there was one upside with regards to the pandemic, in that the Summer Series was broadcast to over 2 million people globally while the world was at a standstill.

Shepherd’s next chapter has coincided with a golden era of Canada basketball. High-level Canadian talent can be seen at all levels of the game, from the NBA to the NCAA to Europe. In Shepherd’s eyes, the biggest change he has seen between when he was at Michigan 15 years ago to now is the coaching.

“There’s more knowledgeable coaching, [and] there’s more knowledgeable supports, so these guys are also more prepared,” Shepherd says, citing Nathaniel Mitchell and Scott Morrison as examples of Canadian coaches who have broken through to the NBA ranks.

“If I’m comparing how I went into college compared to how prepared some of these other kids are now, there’s a complete disparity. And it’s great to see because some of the mistakes that I made, some of the weaknesses or holes that I had in my game, these kids no longer have it, and it’s translating.”

Perhaps that’s why, in a recent feature for CBC, Shepherd spoke to some of the current crop of Canadian NBA talent about their expectations for the upcoming Olympics. Their answer was simple: Gold.

Shepherd is happy to share that sentiment, citing their success in the recent bubble playoffs. He believes our sights should be set on the podium.

But the last time Canada featured in an international tournament was the 2019 FIBA World Cup, where many NBA players opted out of participating. The result was a meagre showing – they didn’t advance past the group stage and will now have to play in another tournament to ensure qualification for the Tokyo Olympics.

But that doesn’t sway Shepherd, insisting that the players are devoted and want to play for the team.He also cited external factors, such as contract restrictions, injuries, or a devotion to their families as a reason for opting out.

The culture of basketball in Canada is still growing. It’s not like the European culture or the American culture where… the country has supported these guys since birth and really developed them and so forth. A lot of our big-name talents, or rising stars, in the NBA or across Europe had to leave Canada to go develop their game in America, or wherever it may be. So, now that they’re successful and you have this expectation for them to get back and represent their country and don’t take anything else into consideration, I think it’s a bit unfair for them because the country didn’t support them all the time.

That said, Shepherd valued every chance he got to play for Canada and singled out the 2010 FIBA World Championships in Turkey as one of his most memorable playing experiences.

Now that he’s in a media role, Shepherd is hoping to contribute to the continued growth of Canadian basketball off the court, rather than on it.

“80 percent of the coverage we have in this country is the Toronto Raptors. And, at the end of the day, the Toronto Raptors speak to the NBA but it doesn’t speak to the culture of Canadian basketball and the development of the game.”

He said that CBC’s commitment to broadcasting the CEBL, which they signed off on after its inaugural season , is a great sign.

“Given that we’re [seeing] the light at the end of the tunnel and the pandemic will, God willing, be ending soon, there’s going to be a backlog of coverage and a lot of basketball that needs to be covered.”

He’s also got a lot of work to do to help grow the game as BlackJacks GM, too. Most importantly, he has to hire a new head coach, one that is a great communicator and is committed to player development.

When asked if he would consider hiring a female head coach, Shepherd replied “absolutely!” He used Chantal Vallee of the Hamilton Honey Badgers, and Brittni Donaldson, an assistant coach of the Raptors 905, as prime examples that women are properly equipped to coach a men’s sport. That said, he’s in no rush to announce a new coach.

Once the hard work is done, the next step will be tapping into the Ottawa community and building up support for when fans are allowed back in the stands. With 2020 being the BlackJacks’ first season, they haven’t had the chance to play in front of TD Place Arena and their home crowd. Shepherd wants to recreate the vibrant tailgates from his time at Michigan, as well as in Europe where he called their fan bases a “fam base.”

“Once we’re through this, it’s time to celebrate just getting through the madness that we’ve experienced the last couple of months.”

Written by David Rouben