RICHMOND, Va. – Unless you’re a dedicated NBA fan, you probably don’t know who Chris Copeland is, and you probably don’t know that after a breakout rookie season with the New York Knicks, that he signed a multi-year contract with the Indiana Pacers.
But Jamal Shuler knows all about it.
After five seasons playing professionally in Germany and France, the former VCU star knows that if Copeland – a former teammate in Germany – can make it to the NBA, then maybe he can too. The 27-year-old Shuler says the success of Copeland, who played for four teams in Europe, as well as the NBA D-League, will serve as inspiration. The same goes for a guy like former Towson star Gary Neal, who Shuler played against while at VCU. Neal played in Turkey, Italy and Spain before signing with the San Antonio Spurs three years ago and has become one of the best shooters in the league.
So if you ask Shuler if he still has a fire in his belly to someday play in the NBA, he won’t hesitate.
“There definitely is, man. There definitely is,” he says.
Shuler’s desire to play in the NBA is one of the reasons you can find him back on the VCU campus every summer. In addition to his work in the weight room, Shuler, who lives in the Richmond area in the offseason, works out and plays pickup games with an impressive group of pros and former Rams at Franklin Street Gym. Eric Maynor has been a fixture in the games for years, as have former Rams B.A. Walker, Brandon Rozzell and a host of others. This summer, Reggie Williams of the Charlotte Bobcats is said to have been involved. It’s that type of training environment that Shuler says will keep his dream alive.
“It’s great for guys like me, Brad [Burgess], Brandon [Rozzell], that we get the opportunity to play with Eric [Maynor], with Reggie [Williams],” Shuler says.
An athletic, 6-foot-3 shooting guard, Shuler scored 1,011 points in his Rams career. He was a critical member of VCU’s landmark 2006-07 team and was the Rams’ second-leading scorer in 2007-08, when he averaged 15.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. In addition to being a plus defender, Shuler was probably best known for his high-flying dunks and long-range shooting. He is eighth all-time at VCU in career 3-point field goals (170).
While two of Shuler’s teammates from that 2007-08 squad, Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders, have gone on to NBA careers, he’s been a standout on a number of European teams, first with Trier in Germany, then with Vichy and Nancy in the French leagues. In 2010, Shuler won the BBL – Germany’s top pro league – slam dunk contest. In 2011, he averaged 16.0 points per game for Vichy and finished in the top 10 in France’s Pro A League in scoring.
Despite his success in Europe, Shuler is still waiting on an NBA call. He believes his best chance to date came during that 2010-11 season with Vichy. That year, Shuler overcame a slow start to average 20.3 points per game in his final 16 contests, including a 35-point outburst. Shuler believed his performance could earn him a workout or summer league opportunity, until the NBA lockout that summer quashed his hopes.
It’s not the only setback the Jacksonville, N.C. native has had to endure. On Oct. 8, six minutes into his second season with Vichy, Shuler tore the MCL and PCL in his left knee. He missed four months of action, and the team plummeted in the standings. For a month after surgery, Shuler’s leg was placed in a cast, his knee bent at a slight angle. When the cast was removed, he was shocked by how scrawny his leg was.
“Before I went off to rehab, I told my wife to take a picture of my leg,” Shuler recalls. “She was telling me to flex my leg, and I’m saying, ‘I am flexing it!’”
But Shuler says he leaned heavily on his wife, Kim, with whom he has a step-daughter and daughter, as well as the advice and the encouragement of Maynor and other former teammates.
He returned on Feb. 2 and averaged 12.3 points in Vichy’s final 13 games. He pumped in 18 points in the final game of the season to lead the team to a win over Le Mans that prevented Vichy from being relegated.
Despite Shuler’s late-season performance, he says he will not return to Nancy, which hired Alain Weisz to take over as head coach from Jean-Luc Monschau following the season.
“With all new coaches, they want their own players,” Shuler said. “The president, he loves me, but he’s going to give all the liberty to the coach to make the team how he wants to make him comfortable, and I totally respect that.”
Shuler says he is now weighing options from teams in Turkey, Italy, Germany and Estonia. Although each team offers its own advantages, Shuler is hoping to land in a situation that will create a path to the NBA. He says he’d prefer to play on a team that is involved in the Euro Cup, a competition that pits teams from different leagues across Europe against each other. Shuler believes that higher level of competition could help get him noticed.
“The gyms overseas are filled with NBA scouts. There’s NBA scouts everywhere overseas,” he says. “That’s why I like overseas, because every game is an audition. You never know who’s in the stands, which GM on the other team or coach is going to like you, so you’ve got to play your best game and you have to have your best attitude every game.”
In addition, Shuler believes if he has a future in the NBA, it’s probably at point guard. Although almost exclusively a shooting guard in college, Shuler has dabbled at the point in Europe. Along the way, he’s picked Maynor’s brain for advice and spent his summers improving his ball handling. Shuler says the Estonian team his agent has spoken with is interested in him as a point guard. In Germany, it would be a little bit of both. Regardless of where he ends up, Shuler says he’ll still have the NBA in his sights.
“I’m young,” he says. “I’m pushing, man. I’m pushing it.”