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Leveling up and overcoming adversity: How Jessica Shepard is ready to propel the Minnesota Lynx

An exclusive interview with Minnesota’s fourth-year forward, whose increasing two-way game is custom-made for the Lynx’s season.

Washington Mystics v. Minnesota Lynx
Jessica Shepard (with ball)
Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — Jessica Shepard thinks back on her rookie season, one that began with her selection by the Minnesota Lynx at 16th in mid-April and pushed her into WNBA competition just a month later — a quick month, a quick training camp, a quick preseason before adjusting to the speed of the league and an extended schedule.

“The turnaround was really quick,” Shepard said in an interview after the team’s Monday practice. “For me, there wasn’t a whole lot of preparation or getting ready. As soon as the draft happened, then I was on my way to Minnesota.”

Minnesota Lynx v Los Angeles Sparks
Jessica Shepard.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Life off the court was its own turnaround after a swift move to Minnesota:

“It was kind of a whirlwind,” she says. “Minnesota is a great place, it’s somewhere I really like to be. The team does a great job of setting up different things. They show you a little bit of the city and then you know where to explore. It’s the Midwest, I love the Midwest. I’m happy to be here.”

In between, Shepard showcased why she was deserving of a second-round selection, holding her own on both ends of the floor before the up-and-coming Lynx rookie tore her ACL. The stats don’t jump off the page — 4.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 37.9 percent from the field in 19 minutes a night — but they mainly highlight Minnesota’s depth at forward and Shepard’s lowly offensive role.

It’s significant for rookies to injure at all in basketball: the list of players to miss extended time in their first season runs deep. Shepard became the latest.

Playing extensively is one way to immediately injure yourself, and Shepard’s collegiate and professional schedule quickly impacted her health. Her dedication and commitment make her one of the most passionate young players to watch, but her time playing basketball was a lot.

“Tearing my ACL, there were a lot of emotions that came along with that. I felt like I was playing good basketball at the time and I was a part of the rotation. I’m very fortunate that it happened in Minnesota where they took great care of me and they were still very invested in me.”

Shepard says that year recovering helped sharpen her focus for basketball.

“Getting injured wasn’t ideal, but at the same time, it gave me an opportunity to stay home in the offseason rather than go overseas. I was able to watch my siblings play a couple games that year. I was able to build a relationship with the staff here in Minnesota. I was able to just watch for a year. And when you’re watching, you’re able to pick up on different things.”

Just as life looked up for Shepard once her rehab was complete, so too did the WNBA game, thanks in part to getting her first full season under her belt.

“Last year, it was just getting back on the court and getting comfortable,” she says. “It was just getting my footing back and being on a WNBA court. It was just getting used to playing that competition again.”

Minnesota Lynx v. Las Vegas Aces
Jessica Shepard.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2021 preseason allowed Shepard to take on an important role receiving all the extended minutes she could handle and being asked to score the ball, which has served as a jumping off point for Year 4.

“For me, it was just being able to go out and get some minutes and get used to the pace again. I also think going overseas was a huge step for me this year and getting really comfortable with the game again.”

Those opportunities have helped expand a well-rounded skillset and made Shepard especially well-equipped for the play style of a grit-and-grind Lynx team still getting healthy. She fits into the make-up of their attack by being able to do a bit of everything, and her active, aggressive rebounding helps elevate an interior that’s progressed towards being more physical and dominant.

“Passing and rebounding are two elements of my game that are really important for this team,” she says. “It’s just making the right reads and putting players in a position to score.”

When asked about her player’s improvement throughout the years, Cheryl Reeve responded: “She’s growing in confidence from an offensive standpoint, that’s what I was really pleased with. She gives us another dimension; the ability to pass, the ability to offensive rebound and get us extra possessions. Those are really valuable things.”

Draft conversation is full of comparisons and archetypes, a form of manuscript that fans and organizations alike appear to utilize to help on the mind’s eye. For those of us who weren’t watching a Nebraska/Ohio State game in the hour before the draft, when a player is labeled a point-forward, it’s at least a benchmark we didn’t have before, even if it does discuss terms like floors, ceilings, and limitations. So it wasn’t shocking that Shepard, whose college profile showcased passing chops and off-ball scoring and whose physical profile leans long and athletic, fell into that prototype.

Those comparisons can help highlight some of the player’s best attributes but, as Shepard claims, they can also be constricting.

“I’ve never really paid attention to labels because I’ve played 1 through 5 throughout my career. I like to be a versatile player. I remember my rookie year, that conversation Coach Reeve and I had was she wanted me to be myself. So, that helped by not being put into a box. As basketball players, we know what we’re good at and it’s just about having the confidence to go out there every night and do it.”

The Lynx also saw more in Shepard when drafting her. Here’s what general manager Cheryl Reeve said after draft night: “We drafted her because of her basketball abilities. When you can put the ball in the hands of a post player to make decisions, to shoot, pass, drive, that’s utopia.”

As Reeve and company would’ve vouched, Shepard’s college film already advertised a broader all-around skillset than what fits the point-forward mold, showing hustle on the rebound and an ability to guard various positions on the floor. That alone speaks to more all-around usage than, let’s say, someone who’s best put in the high-post. So, too, does the fact that her defense has improved with more playing time and opportunities this season.

That has been part of Shepard’s game for a while. This season she’s shown she can guard her assignment through a display of on-ball aggressiveness and passion, using her footwork, athleticism, and determination to lock-down opposing players. And yeah, she’s heard all about why she can’t do it.

“I really want to be an all-around player. I don’t want it to be ‘she can be really productive on the offensive end, but on defense she’s not.’”

Shepard’s confidence on the defensive end isn’t dissimilar to that of a current teammate, now a four-time Defensive Player of the Year.

“You’re standing next to one of the greatest players of all-time every day,” Shepard says of Sylvia Fowles. “She’s always telling me little details that really make the game easier. Last game, I got drove by twice and she was there to block the ball straight into the stands. It’s pretty special to able to play alongside her.”

Minnesota Lynx v. Los Angeles Sparks
Jessica Shepard.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Fowles similarities don’t go far, of course, with most of Shepard’s defensive highlights still coming in spurts. And for the restless individual still searching for comparisons and similarities to other players to anticipate where she goes from here, it’s difficult to pinpoint any single correspondent.

“I want to be the best basketball player that I can be,” she says. “I don’t think I’m anywhere near the best that I can be yet and I don’t think I’ll ever really be satisfied with where I’m at.”

She adds, when asked about her short-term goals in Minnesota:

“I just want to continue to grow and develop. For me, it’s just continuing to grow and just be more and more confident in myself and my abilities on both ends of the court.”

Already in her fourth season, Shepard has shown there’s more to her game than fits in a box. If her defense, volume and health keep trending the right way, even the most outlandish imagination could run free. That makes now a perfect time to rethink comparisons and see what role she plays on the next championship-caliber Lynx team.