Head coach Kirby Schepp has seen the future of his program its name is Simon Hildebrandt.
The 19-year-old Winnipegger returned to his hometown earlier this month, committing to Schepp’s University of Manitoba Bisons basketball team after prep-school stops in Toronto and Woodstock, Conn., over the past two years.
Hildebrandt went south to hone his skills for an intended move to NCAA Division I men’s basketball. While a U.S. college scholarship never came to fruition, he believes he’s found his place to thrive on the court.
The 6-9, 220-pound athlete is in his third week of scrimmaging with current and former Bisons players at Investors Group Athletic Centre while also starting a personalized lifting program with the guidance of U of M strength coach Cole Scheller.
"I probably could have come here right after my Grade 12 year," said Hildebrandt, who played his Grade 11 season at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute before moving away from home.
"I know it’s tough at first, but I know I’m coming home to a great program. And so far, in the last two and a half weeks, I’ve loved playing here. I’ve had more fun these past two weeks playing basketball than I’ve had in the last year."
How good is he? Schepp is not prone to hyperbole, but maintains Hildebrandt could be the program’s most important recruit in his 13 years at the helm.
"For his size and physical ability, he has a refined skillset that’s sort of beyond his years, right?" said Schepp. "It’s going to help him contribute right away. There’s not so many guys that are 6-9 or whatever he is, that can shoot the ball and make decisions at his level and move as he does."
Hildebrandt’s ability to play on the perimeter and in the post helps to set him apart. He has the makings of what Schepp calls a "truly positionless player."
"You’ve gotta be able to play everywhere and I think that’s the way the game is evolving and that’s where I think he can be really good," said Schepp.
Hildebrandt credits his old Junior Bisons coach, Herve Vincent, for convincing him to develop diverse skills as a shooter, ball handler and post player.
"His philosophy was everybody learns everything," said Hildebrandt. "I know some coaches, if you’re tall when you’re young, you play the post. If you’re little, you’re a guard. He was very European… so, thanks to him, I can shoot it, I can drive it, I’m so many steps ahead of some other people."
Hildebrandt, who was once a good enough volleyball prospect that he was recruited by Trinity Western (Langley B.C.), a perennial U Sports power, is also getting rave reviews from his off-season workout partners.
"The really exciting part is we really don’t know what his ceiling is going to be like, because it’s very rare that you see a guy that’s 6-9 but then has skill, is athletic and just a hard worker," said power forward James Wagner, who graduated from the Bisons this spring after five seasons with the program.
"I really envision him being an all-Canadian, a guy who’s going to be one of the premier players in the country. I just think he’s such a rare talent and I’m excited to see him evolve."
While Wagner has used up his eligibility, Hildebrandt joins a promising group of young players that also includes guards Mason Kraus, Daren Watts and Tito Obasoto. All three will be entering their second seasons in the program this fall.
Kraus followed a similar path as Hildebrandt, leaving Sturgeon Heights after Grade 11 to play at Bill Crothers Prep in Unionville, Ont., and then to TRC Academy in Brantford, Ont., in pursuit of an NCAA scholarship. Like Hildebrand, he came home when the pandemic helped scuttle his opportunities in the U.S.
"I played with him a lot and it’s nice to have him back," said Kraus. "He can do a lot of things, so he’ll make a great contribution to our team."
Hildebrandt did have interest from American schools, getting offers from Jacksonville State and University of California Riverside early in his time at Woodstock Academy. But he preferred to wait, and those scholarships went to other players.
"I do believe Simon is worthy of a Division I scholarship in the U.S.," said Woodstock Academy head coach Jacque Rivera, who was still fielding calls from schools interested in Hildebrandt until his commitment to the U of M earlier this month.
"I think a bunch of schools missed an opportunity. He had an offer from Jacksonville University in Florida, but because COVID was still pretty strict it was hard getting him on an official visit with his parents to get out of Canada and then get back to Canada."
Playing at the U Sports level does not prevent Hildebrandt from having a professional career.
"I’d love to play pro," said Hildebrandt. "That’s my goal and I knew coming here they have alumni here — guys who have played pro — that have made it to that level. So, I know if I can come here, I can follow in those footsteps."
Rivera believes that career goal is achievable.
"I think Simon has the opportunity to get paid to play the game of basketball because… he has a high IQ for basketball," said Rivera. "His versatility from the perimeter at his size is really intriguing at the next level."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.