In the way that former president Ernie Grunfeld had structured and managed the Washington Wizards‘ hierarchy, there were few instances of subordinates afforded access to owner Ted Leonsis. Coaches and executives would come and go, but audiences without Grunfeld’s presence to filter interactions were rare.
This was why Leonsis didn’t know assistant general manager Tommy Sheppard well — nor how Sheppard imagined running the Wizards, nor how his deep roots in the international game could shape the Wizards’ global footprint. Grunfeld was fired in April, with Sheppard installed as interim GM, and the owner’s mandate to Sheppard on his internal candidacy for GM was simple: Don’t tell me, show me.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time with Tommy because of the hierarchy, but I told him: Let me see how you work,” Leonsis told ESPN. “Let me see how you handle the draft. Let me see a strategy document and a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. He came back and said he needed assets and young players, and that we needed to connect the draft to free agency. Our big goal was to get more coachable players that fit a system that the coaches wanted to play, that would get us younger, hungrier players that would be helped by our development coaches.
“And Tommy is also a big believer — like us in ownership — that the world is a big place. He’s very fluent in the global view of basketball.”
Sheppard will be introduced at a news conference on Monday in Washington as the new Wizards GM, arriving with a reshaped and reimagined front office. There’s John Thompson III, the former Georgetown coach, leading a new athlete development and engagement department; former NFL executive and Harvard Law graduate Sashi Brown as chief planning and operations officer; Daniel Medina, formerly of the Philadelphia 76ers, as chief of athlete care and performance.
Sheppard benefited when the franchise’s search process sputtered. Leonsis passed on several candidates, and he was turned down by Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly. (When Connelly was approached about the job, sources say, he told the organization that it should hire his longtime Wizards colleague, Sheppard).
“Initially, you follow the hippocratic oath: Don’t do any harm,” Sheppard told ESPN. “Collectively as a staff, we had a chance to unharness our talent. We had conversations on ways we believed we could do it, and now, we can do it. There’s no room to gripe if it doesn’t work. We can put our ideas together and go execute.”
Leonsis found an executive dying to implement the values that the owner himself had created in his businesses and wanted with the Wizards: Collaborative, data and value-driven and the pursuit of high-performing and high-character players. Out of the inconsistencies, the starts and stops of an occasional playoff contender, a Wizards way had to be built.
“As a group, one of things I’ve learned in talking to most of the big powerful agents, and agencies and top players: ownership matters,” Leonsis told ESPN. “The players and owners want to believe you’re speaking and aligned as an organization. We’ve signed up for that here now.”
For 16 years, Sheppard had been an assistant GM with the franchise. Sheppard showed Leonsis what the rest of the league had always known: he never shared his internal disagreements on decisions with those outside the organization. Leonsis said: “Tommy told me: ‘I am loyal to the people I report to. I’m not going to say, I wouldn’t have done that. I’m going to tell what we should do now.'”
Leonsis saw the character of his roster start to evolve. Together, Sheppard and Leonsis engaged every day on John Wall‘s Achilles rehabilitation in Florida, watching tape of his work, talking to the franchise point guard and his trainers constantly. They had Bradley Beal in the draft room, talking through the kind of character changes on the roster that would complement the All-Star guard. They moved Dwight Howard out of the organization. (“The quickest trade I’ve ever done in my life,” Sheppard told ESPN.) They gathered a second-round pick and young players in the trade with Los Angeles Lakers, and chased down accomplished, winning players in the NBA draft: Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield.
Eventually, Leonsis didn’t see Sheppard as the extension of an outdated regime that he ousted, but the unleashing of a progressive mind who understood that the modern duties of a GM required the supporting cast that Leonsis has invested to bring to the franchise.
“I like (Sheppard’s) dexterity to be able to deal with the existing NBA, but to also really look at it as a global enterprise,” Leonsis told ESPN. “My belief is that you can you do things fast. We have the wherewithal and resources and facilities and technology.
“If we can bring John (Wall) back and, with Brad, develop our draft picks and assets, start to manage the (salary) cap, why can’t this be quick? It doesn’t need to be a five-years it took when we drafted John and Brad. We can turn this one faster.”