American basketballer Winston Shepard took the New Zealand National Basketball League by storm in 2018 dure his first stop in the Kiwi competition. Since then, he’s played all over the globe including Israel, Asia, Montenegro, Hungary and, most recently, a dramatic end to his stint in Ukraine. Next week, he will add Invercargill to his list, signing on to play for the Southland Sharks as the team’s second import player for 2022.
Sharks’ Head Coach Rob Beveridge is delighted to add Shepard’s versatility to his 2022 roster and is excited by what he has seen on film from the 28-year-old power forward.
“We looked at a number of imports and you've got to do your due diligence and when I came across Winston's video I immediately thought, he's the guy, he's the one we want."
"What I love about him is that he's so versatile. He played in the league for Canterbury in 2018 and averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and led the league in steals as well. He's a high IQ player and as a big guy he can handle the ball. He's really a Swiss Army knife and I'll think he'll fit into our team very well,” Beveridge said.
Shepard agrees with his coach’s assessment.
“I'm super excited man. I have vivid memories of traveling to Southland and playing in the arena. It's a great atmosphere and great environment, so I'm looking forward to it. I like to think I’m a player that has a great skill set and I try to be as versatile as I can be and I love to get guys involved. I like to think passing is one of my best assets, so I'm looking forward to it and am really excited about the opportunity, he said.
Shepard’s basketball passport is extensive, something he puts down as part and parcel of life as a professional baller.
“That's the basketball journey. You just look up one day, you get an email or phone call and it’s a case of OK, I'm going to this country or that place. So, it's an adventurous life and I've been able to view just about the entire globe because of my ability, so I'm thankful for that,” Shepard said.
He has been in demand since his Ukraine campaign ended abruptly in February, due to Russia’s invasion of the country.
“I've been turning things down, just waiting for the right situation and the right fit to further advance my career. When I got the call from coach Rob and he sent me his profile, it was a no-brainer for me to be like, OK, this is the situation that feels right,” he said.
Now that the next chapter in his basketball story is confirmed, Shepard can reflect on the chaotic and premature end to his time in Ukraine.
“I've never been in that type of situation before. I played in Israel where there's a lot of conflict but they were much more proactive about the situation. In Ukraine, I would say that the attitude of everyone initially was relax, nothing is going to happen, don't worry about it.”
“In the weeks leading up to it, my agent was trying to get me out of there and the team was saying nothing's going to happen and if I left I would be voiding my contract. So, it was a tough situation but I really look at it now as having the best possible route out of chaos. It could have been a lot worse, I mean I could have been stranded. I'm thankful to God the way that it went for me and I was able to get out safe and sound. My heart goes out to the Ukrainians and I pray for the best outcome for them as the people of the nation,” Shepard said.
Shepard wanted to ensure he did right by his club, BC Odessa, and was preparing to hunker down in his apartment when it became apparent to both he and his club that the situation was escalating quickly.
“I knew things were starting to turn the tide when I went to the grocery store one morning and it was total chaos and I realized things weren’t going to be OK. That very same day the team told me they were getting me out of there. So all in all, I was lucky and I'm just thankful that I was able to get out and thankful for the route I was able to take to get back home. It is something I will always remember and I will never be able to forget that,” Shepard said.
Understandably, he is now looking forward to the calm in New Zealand where he can refocus on his game and on contributing to the Sharks’ aspirations in the Sal’s NBL.
“Once I get there next week it will be a case of gelling and getting some practices under our belt together and I can’t wait to see how Coach Bevo plans to use me and the type of offense we plan to play. I'm sure that I will be able to adjust and hopefully I can have as successful a campaign as last time (2018), submerge myself in the culture and try to contribute to my team-mates success and be the best player that I can possibly be,” Shepard said.
The Southland Sharks are on the road this weekend facing a challenging back-to-back against Franklin Bulls in Auckland (Saturday 7:30pm) and Manawatu Jets in Palmerston North (Sunday 5:00pm) before returning home on short rest to face the Hawke’s Bay Hawks Thursday night at ILT Stadium Southland.
Tickets for Thursday’s clash with the Hawks are on sale now at Stadium reception or online via ticketek.co.nz.