By Andrew Kahn
Winston Shepard wanted to go home. The Houston native was coming off a freshman season where he averaged 5.7 points, shot 39 percent, and turned it over as often as he assisted. The highest-rated recruit in San Diego State basketball history had tried too hard to prove himself. Fans and media members were disappointed. Coach Steve Fisher prefers his players stay on campus during the summer to take classes and work out with their teammates, but he made an exception for Shepard.
Shepard has rewarded Fisher as a sophomore. He’s second on the team with 13.2 points per game and averages 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists. The 6’8”, 205-pound Shepard often plays guard for the No. 10 Aztecs and has become a matchup nightmare in the Mountain West Conference.
At times last season, Winston couldn’t get out of his own way, according to Fisher. Ranked as the 21st-best recruit in the country by Rivals, Shepard came to San Diego State with the wrong mindset. “I wanted to help the team so much that at times it hurt me,” Shepard said after the Aztecs improved to 14-1 with Sunday’s win over Air Force. “Right off the bat I wanted to show them what I could do. It didn’t work out like that.”
He showed flashes of his versatile skills—18 points on nine shots against UNLV—but was inconsistent. Shepard returned to campus a better shooter and passer, but Fisher says “he’s made the most dramatic improvement from the neck up.” Over the summer in Houston, Shepard shuffled between his house and the gym. “I tried to lay as low as possible,” he said. He attended both LeBron James’ and Kevin Durant’s camps, competing against some of the best college players in the country and picking the brains of the NBA superstars. “Kevin Durant told me, ‘You don’t have to rush anything on the court. When you get the ball, it’s your world. Nobody can do anything until you do something with the ball.’”
The advice has helped Shepard assess the defense and make the right decision. Last season, he’d be offended when coaches suggested he practice with the big men. Now he accepts the challenge and routinely posts up smaller defenders. And he’s explosive enough to get past bigger, slower players. The result has been more trips to the free throw line. Shepard is second in the conference in drawing fouls, according to KenPom.com.
Mark Adams, the ESPN analyst for San Diego State’s game on Sunday, was very impressed with Shepard, who tallied 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Adams noted that Fisher often used Shepard in the backcourt with point guard Xavier Thames to help break full-court pressure, not a responsibility often given to someone his size. He referenced one of Winston’s baskets in which he drove across the lane and exploded to the rim in a quick burst. “You couldn’t guard him in that situation.”
The Aztecs have already beaten Creighton and Marquette on a neutral court and snapped Kansas’ 68-game nonconference home winning streak. They are sixth in the country in effective field goal percentage defense and should be a dangerous NCAA Tournament team.
Last year, Shepard paid a lot of attention to what people were saying about his struggles. This season, the reports have been overwhelmingly positive, but he’s not listening.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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