Voted the two best players in Canada. Recruiters gushing over them. Coming to Michigan.
Must be the two newest members of the hockey team, right?
Not even close.
Don’t feel bad if you guessed wrong. True, they’re the two most talked about basketball players in all of Canada. Mr. and Miss Basketball for the entire country. But, freshmen Jevohn Shepherd and Stephany Skrba are used to having to earn their respect in their home country.
“We (Canadians) don’t quite understand how good we have it in terms of our higher-level talent,” said Wayne Dawkins, Shepherd’s high school and AAU coach. “There just wasn’t the same amount of excitement over them as I found in the States. (Americans) were much more excited about them than people at home were. That’s unfortunate.”
And it’s likely that this American support will continue. Because, the more fans discover about how good these two really are, the more it will impress them that the Canadian duo chose Michigan.
The seeds of Shepherd’s recruitment were planted well before he could even dribble a basketball.
The origins of his commitment to Ann Arbor started in Ypsilanti. It was here in the early ’90s that a young coach Dawkins played college basketball.
Ten years later, Dawkins would be the man who discovered Shepherd’s talent.
Before attending West Hill Collegiate High School in Toronto, Shepherd had played basketball, but never competitively. Once Dawkins laid eyes on him, that all changed.
Shepherd’s 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame was the long, lean body that Dawkins looked for in a basketball player. He exhibited a natural “smoothness” for the game. And, most importantly, Shepherd demonstrated to Dawkins that he was willing to do what it would take to succeed.
“He wants to learn,” Dawkins said. “If that meant sitting still for eight hours and listening or running around the court for eight hours, you know, following instructions, he’s willing to do whatever it takes. That kind of humility you can’t find in a young player. It usually comes with a fight to get them to buy into it. But with him, there’s no fight.”
Dawkins would mentor Shepherd on his quest to play college basketball. It meant long hours in the gym. It meant traveling to the United States more than 10 times a year. It meant Mitsy Shepherd, Jevohn’s mom, had to put her full faith in Dawkins.
“She had to trust me when I was bringing her son to Vegas, America and all these places,” Dawkins said. “The best players in the world are in America. The best coaches are here. If you want to compete at the highest level then you need to get down here at all cost.”
And, it wasn’t just playing in AAU tournaments or attending recruiting showcases. Sometimes, it was traveling to Storrs, Conn., to watch former West Hill Collegiate teammate Denham Brown play for the Huskies. Other times, it was heading to New York to visit the historic Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament. Dawkins felt immersing Shepherd in the American basketball culture was necessary to keep Shepherd on par with his counterparts in the States.
And, if you believe stats don’t lie, all this grueling travel paid off. In his freshman year of high school, Shepherd averaged a mere nine points and four rebounds per game. By his senior year, those numbers were up to 28 and six, not to mention the five blocks and three assists per game he also recorded. He earned numerous first-team awards and was crowned Mr. Basketball. Shepherd even represented Canada during the World University Games in Turkey.
“European players getting as good as they are, that experience at that level is key,” Dawkins said. “He got to play against men (not boys), he got to play at a higher level. He got to experience higher-level coaching. I, by no means, claim to be the be all end all in coaching.”
Shepherd was clearly college basketball material – only the question of where to go remained. Dawkins’s playing days would have a major effect on this decision. When Dawkins played at Eastern Michigan, there was a young assistant coach, Charles Ramsey, who would go on to be the recruiting coordinator under Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. Dawkins persuaded Ramsey to come to Canada and watch Shepherd play. Soon enough, Ramsey invited Shepherd to Ann Arbor.
Both Shepherd and his mother Mitsy admit they knew little about the Michigan basketball program. But all it took was one visit to campus, and they were sold. Michigan was the only school Shepherd visited before making his choice despite being courted by schools like Illinois and Georgia Tech.
“In the end, the decision was Jevohn’s,” Mitsy said. “But I really liked coach Amaker. I liked his philosophy. I liked the way he presented himself. I really liked his values in terms of school and the program he was running. So, you know, with all of that, and the distance from home, that is how I decided, ‘Well Jevohn, this is where I think it would be a good place for you to be.’ And he values my opinion.”
After making the obligatory Canadian jokes when their teammate first reached campus, Shepherd’s fellow Wolverines soon realized that he could play. Sophomore Ron Coleman, Shepherd’s roommate, says that he was particularly impressed with the Canadian’s athleticism and leaping ability. Teammates have even started drawing a comparison to fan-favorite Brent Petway by nicknaming Shepherd “Air Canada 2k5.” Petway has challenged Shepherd to a dunk contest, but, for now, the Toronto native is content letting Air Georgia keep his crown.
“Brent’s on another level all by himself,” Shepherd said. “I don’t even mess with him.”
The coaches at Michigan have fallen in love with Shepherd just as quickly as he and his mother fell in love with the school.
Amaker noted at Michigan Media Day that Shepherd is more physically advanced than one expects a freshman to be. This is no surprise, considering Shepherd – ever focused on his goals – worked with a personal trainer all summer.
“I just wanted to be prepared because I heard so many stories,” Shepherd said. “Guys throwing up, guys quitting. Division I, the first practice is conditioning.”
Although he didn’t score, Shepherd got himself noticed in his first college game – Michigan’s exhibition against Grand Valley State. During the second half, he trapped a Laker along the sideline, creating a five-second violation. Even though Shepherd logged just 10 minutes, his play earned praise from Amaker.
“I thought he did well for the minutes that he earned,” Amaker said. “I think he has a chance to become a good player here. He has a lot of things to learn, to get better, to be under control at times. But, I liked the fact that he can be aggressive and explosive. Sometimes with that comes a moment or two when you can be out of control.
“That’s a process, learning to downshift and change speeds or see things a little better or be patient. That comes with growth and maturity and time. But what we have in the core of that young man we really like.”
Stephany Skrba has a knack for making first impressions.
It was 10th grade when a number of college coaches came to scout Stephany’s teammate, Natasha Bogdanova, who now plays at Purdue. On one play late in the first half, an opposing player pump-faked Bogdanova and drove to the basket for a layup. Skrba rotated from the weakside and pinned the ball against the backboard. Her father George remembers vividly the jaw-dropping expressions on the coaches’ faces.
“After the game, they didn’t want to talk about Natasha, they wanted to talk about Stephany,” George said.
“She pinned her on the glass,” a coach from St. Bonaventure’s said.
“Hey, she’s only in grade 10,” George responded.
“I’ve never seen a girl pin another girl’s shot on the glass,” the coach said.
“Well, I haven’t seen her do that before myself – lucky timing, I guess,” Skrba’s father said.
George recounts another story a year prior, in Stephany’s first year of playing club ball. As a 15-year-old, Skrba traveled to the States with a number of older girls, most ready to enter their senior season of high school. A coach from North Carolina-Wilmington inquired about Skrba. Expecting the question to be about one of the older girls, the director of the club team was somewhat flummoxed, but not as much as the coach who learned Skrba was just entering the 10th grade.
“He was blown away,” George said. “He said, ‘My head coach wants to offer her a scholarship right now.’ And, we laughed about it. That’s when we started thinking she could go somewhere. It was very flattering to hear that.”
From her birth, Skrba seemed destined to be a basketball player. George played college ball at York University-Toronto. As a child, Stephany tagged along when he competed in recreational tournaments, often shooting baskets on the sideline. Yet, basketball was not Skrba’s first choice.
In middle school, Skrba competed on her school’s basketball team, but, like Shepherd, she never took the sport seriously. Her first true love was track, and she joined a club team by seventh grade.
“The guy that runs that club (said), no matter what your stature was, you had to compete in every event,” George said. “So, if you were a tall, skinny kid, you had to throw the shotput. If you were a short, chunky kid, you had to run a 100-meters.”
In high school, this philosophy would lead to Skrba excelling, and medaling, in the odd combination of the high jump, long jump and shot put. Although basketball became her No. 1 sport, track and field helped Skrba’s athletic development. By 10th grade, Skrba could dunk a tennis ball.
It wasn’t until high school that Skrba started playing basketball competitively. She joined her high school team at Langstaff Secondary School in suburban Toronto and the club team “Toronto 5-0.” Much like Shepherd had Dawkins, Skrba started taking lessons from the coach who taught her everything she knows – her dad.
But people did not always recognize Skrba’s talents. Early in her basketball career, Stephany tried out for the Ontario provincial team and was cut. The 15 girls who did make it scrimmaged against Quebec and lost. The next day, Skrba’s club routed the Quebec squad, and she scored 25 points.
The greatest vindication was yet to come – when, a year later, Skrba made the the Canadian Junior roster. During the FIBA Americas Under-19 tournament in Puerto Rico, she led the Red and White in both points and rebounding, and the team qualified for the World Championships in Tunisia.
“Amazing,” Skrba said of her time with the national team. “To be able to travel to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Africa and France representing your country, that’s just amazing – no other words to describe it.”
Domestically, Skrba was Canada’s most dominant high school player. Coaches often remarked to George that their teams would have beaten Langstaff by 100 points if it weren’t for Stephany because of her dominant offensive and defensive play. By her senior year, she averaged 30 points, 18 rebounds and eight blocks per game.
Obviously, teams were anxious to recruit Skrba. According to Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett, over 120 Division I schools contacted her. And, like many others, Burnett was drawn in by Skrba the first time she saw her play.
“My impression of Stephany Skrba, watching her team play was, if I could get to Michigan a dream player, just pick one, of all the kids that I had seen the summer, my No. 1 pick would be Stephany Skrba,” Burnett said.
In the end, Burnett’s dream came true. Although Michigan has struggled recently – it won just one Big Ten game last season – Skrba could not turn down the prospect of a Michigan education and the chance to play for a coach as successful as Burnett, who went to two Final Fours when she coached at Southwest Missouri State.
Although Skrba committed after Shepherd, and the two were acquainted, they did not consult on each other’s decision.
“Academically, Michigan is one of the top schools in the nation, so that’s a no-brainer,” Skrba said. “Athletically, I know we’re going to get there. So I’m just really excited to help us get there.”
Officially listed at 6-foot-3, Skrba will play a post position for the Wolverines this season. In Michigan’s exhibition opener, a one-point victory over Athletes in Action, Skrba logged just a few minutes. So, when she got more playing time against Ohio Legends, she made sure to take advantage of the opportunity. In 20 minutes, she scored 10 points, grabbed four boards and blocked a shot.
If she keeps it up, Michigan’s regular opponents might be next in line to see what a first impression Skrba can make.
“(I) just (want) to come in and make an impact in whatever way that can be, whatever way the coaches would like me to make an impact,” Skrba said. “I think I bring a lot of things to this program, and hopefully I’ll be able to make a great impact.”
With just six other Canadian men’s and women’s basketball players in the Big Ten, these two have the potential to influence the future of the sport in their country. With the two Michigan teams winning a combined five Big Ten games last season, these two have the talent to have a significant influence on the future of their school.
Who knows? If they perform as expected, Red Berenson, Amaker and Burnett might start carpooling for recruiting trips up north in future.