WNBA draft night, April 10.
It was the late first round. And, as each pick was about to be announced, Jessica Shepard was hoping and praying …
Please, don’t pick me.
Shepard, having just finished up her second year at Notre Dame — she transferred from Nebraska after her sophomore season — with an NCAA championship on her résumé, was hoping to keep sliding.
At least until the Lynx were on the clock again with the No. 16 overall pick in the second round.
“I knew I had a great opportunity here,’’ Shepard said Friday after Lynx practice. “This is where I wanted to be.’’
Shepard wasn’t alone that night. The Lynx, in full rebuild mode, had taken Napheesa Collier at No. 6. Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve knew Shepard after working with her with USA Basketball — and knew the combination of smarts, rebounding and passing ability the 6-3 forward could bring to the team.
So, shortly after Collier was taken, Reeve, too, started hoping.
“We had an offer for the 16th pick,’’ she said. “Ordinarily it would be a good offer. We said no. We’re grabbing Jessica.’’
Shepard and Reeve got their wish. And so far?
Through training camp, preseason and two regular-season games, it has become clear that Shepard has been able to do what few WNBA rookies — especially those drafted in the second round — can do.
Namely, transfer what she did well at the highest level of college ball into the pros. In her case that means rebounding, a knack for passing from the high post, a talent for setting screens and efficient shooting.
In the opening victory over Chicago, Shepard had 13 rebounds — tied for the most in WNBA history for a rookie debut — and led the team with six assists. In Wednesday’s victory over Seattle, Shepard scored 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting, four rebounds and two more assists.
She was one of the first Lynx players to get all the plays down. A newcomer, she’s already one of the most vocal players on the court; Reeve tells stories about how much Janel McCarville helped a rookie named Damiris Dantas out back in 2014, making sure she was always in the right place. Dantas is back this season, and this time it’s Shepard helping her out.
Not a surprise, said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. She assumed Shepard would be much like a rookie in her first year with the Irish. But she was up on all the plays from the start, a leader from the beginning. “She can see things,’’ McGraw said. “She has the vision to know what’s coming next. Some kids barely know what’s going on right now.’’
It was a casual conversation, not some stern sit-down. Shepard was in Columbia, S.C., in September 2018 at the U.S. women’s national team training camp. She didn’t make the team that went on to win FIBA World Cup gold. But, shortly after getting cut, she and Reeve — who works with USA Basketball — had a chat.
Reeve told Shepard about how good the WNBA was, how athletic, how fast. Shepard’s best chance was being in peak condition. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve talked to players and given them information and it’s just not accepted,’’ Reeve said.
A mere months later Reeve turned the TV on to watch Notre Dame’s first game. She saw Shepard, 40 pounds lighter. She was shocked. She texted Shepard asking, “Where did the rest of you go?’’
To work. Counting calories, working out constantly, lifting weights.
“We drafted her because of her basketball abilities,’’ Reeve said. “But I will say, it gave us more confidence. Give her a ton of credit. What she said to me was she didn’t want anything she could control to stand in her way.’’
In the middle of the Lynx’s championship run — but more so early in it — the team’s offense relied on high-post passing to players cutting into the paint. Taj McWilliams-Franklin and McCarville were great at that, as is Dantas.
A point guard as a youth, Shepard has the knack, which can already be seen in her entry passes to Sylvia Fowles or a cutting Collier. “When you can put the ball in the hands of a post player to make decisions, to shoot, pass, drive, that’s utopia,’’ Reeve said.
Especially when a player comes up to speed quickly. To be fair, Reeve wasn’t certain Shepard would be able to make the transition. There is a reason why she lasted four picks into the second round. But from the start, Shepard has looked at home.
“I think I naturally pick up the game pretty well,’’ she said. “Also, I go through the plays every night to make sure I have ’em down. That makes it easier in the game.’’
“It was a steal,’’ McGraw said of Shepard going at 16. “She can shoot, rebound, pass. She played 35 minutes a game. But I’m happy she got to Minnesota.’’
She’s not alone.
“This is definitely where I wanted to be,’’ Shepard said.