Once Pierce Shybunka knew he could play basketball at the post-secondary level it was a natural decision for him to attend Red Deer Polytechnic and play for the Kings.
After all his grandfather, Doug Swanson, played with the Kings hockey team and his mother, Nan Swanson, with the Queens soccer team.
“It was a dream of mine to play here ever since I quit playing hockey and pursued basketball full time,” explained the 20-year-old Hunting Hills grad. “So when I got the opportunity to come here it was like a dream come true (to follow in their footsteps).”
Pierce played a number of sports growing up, but once he got to Grade 9 he decided to drop hockey and volleyball and concentrate on basketball.
“I decided I had to concentrate on one sport and so once I decided on basketball I put all my effort into it,” he said.
But it wasn’t until he joined the Kings Club program and met former Kings star and current assistant coach Spencer Klassen that he knew he could play at the next level.
“When coach Spencer was playing with the Kings he told me he saw something special in me and that lit a spark and made me pursue this even more,” said Shybunka.
Pierce graduated high school in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in the cancellation of the 2020-21 college season.
But the five-foot-10 point guard sees that as a blessing.
“I came to college at 145 pounds and not strong enough to play at this level. I trained with the basketball guys for about four months and by training and eating right I put on 30 pounds. I needed that not to be bullied on the court. So it was a blessing in disguise.”
Pierce always played the guard position and was a strong outside shooter in high school and felt he could comfortably step into the college ranks.
“I was definitely surprised,” he said. “Coming out of high school I felt I’d be one of those guys but it was a complete opposite … I was at the bottom of the barrel when it came to skill and the last three years I’ve worked hard to be in the position I’m in.”
Pierce saw limited playing time early last season but as the season wore on he gained more and more of coach Darren Graham’s confidence.
He finished the season playing a little over 10 minuets a game and averaged 2.4 points per game. This season he’s started a number of games in the preseason with Eduardo Crespo on the injured list, and is the first off the bench when n0t starting. In two games he’s averaged 27 minutes per game and nine points per game.
“When he first came in I thought he’d break in as an off guard but he showed right away he had what it took to be a point guard and that’s where he belonged,” said Graham. “He’s mentally focused, confident with his shot and ball handling and has the ability to be a general on the floor.
“He’s had his ups and downs of course but I’ve been impressed with his journey. I see two big bullet points when I look at his success.
“One was to get his body right. He needed to gain size and strength and get his legs physically right, which he has. Second is his mental component in that he accepted his role and learned his place in the flow of the game. He has confidence in running the offence and on the defensive side… he makes an impact on both ends of the court.
“The big thing is still consistency as a point guard there’s a huge demand.”
Pierce knows he has to continue to work on his game and being consistent.
“There’s always someone waiting to take your minutes,” he said. “I try my hardest at everything I do and as coach Darren says you have to earn your minutes which taught me to continue to be better each time out. I try to improve by one per cent each day.”
Pierce realizes ball handling and outside shooting is his forte.
“That’s the main things. I have to be able to handle the ball and create open space for myself and knock down the shots. If I can’t do that I’m not much help anywhere else … I have to make it work.”
Pierce gained even more confidence and playing time in the preseason thanks to Crespo’s ankle injury.
“The preseason did help me develop even more plus now that I’m in my second year I’m way more confident and relaxed … I can think faster and do different things.”
Pierce is in his final year of Kinesiology, but isn’t sure what he’ll do next year.
“I could stay for another year or go to the U of A … we’ll see. I’m still young and have a lot of time ahead of me.”
The Kings opened their season last weekend, losing twice to St. Mary’s University 105-78 and 91-78. Turnovers and defence were their downfall.
”That was the biggest disappointment,” said Shybunka. “We have to clean up the turnovers and work harder on defence. We do that we can go a long way. We have the guys who can play defence and have the ability to spread out the offence.”
The Kings lost defending league scoring champion Ty King forcing the offence to be spread around this year.
“I think I enjoy it a bit more this year. We lost 30 shots that Ty took now we have to spread those out and it forced me to create more and get more guys involved and we do have a lot of guys who can score 10 to 15 points a game.”
The Kings have another tough weekend as RDP hosts Medicine Hat Rattlers in a weekend doubleheader. The women tip off Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. followed by the men.
“We’ll have our hands full as Medicine Hat defeated five-time champion SAIT last weekend,” said Graham. “But we’ve tweaked our offence a bit to eliminate some of the turnovers and also put in a couple things to get ready for their offence.”
Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org