Although they come from different worlds, Jarell Christian and Pops Mensah-Bonsu have existed in the same basketball orbit.
As a coach’s son growing up in New Kent, Va., Christian was such a student of basketball that he would record college games then pore over those VCR tapes, pausing the action and studying the little nuisances of his favorite point guards. Mensah-Bonsu, who hails from north London, discovered the game at a later age but shined at George Washington University before following a serpentine professional path in the NBA, Europe and the since-renamed NBA Development League. Now both men have converged to lead the Washington Wizards’ start-up G League affiliate.
The Wizards on Tuesday officially announced Christian as the Capital City Go-Go head coach and Mensah-Bonsu as the team’s general manager.
The Go-Go operates under the Monumental Sports & Entertainment umbrella along with the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics and several other professional teams, and will play in an arena that is still under construction in Southeast Washington. The team will make its debut in the 2018-19 season as the 27th franchise of the G League, the minor league that develops younger players and showcases veterans who are striving to make an NBA roster.
“When this opportunity came open, it was a position that I wanted in terms of being a G League head coach,” Christian said, “and it was the best proximity that I could’ve wished for with it being the closest to my family and also my wife’s family.”
With Christian, 32, and Mensah-Bonsu, 34, the Wizards sought young yet established management before the maiden season.
Christian, who attended Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va., worked four seasons as an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s G League affiliate. His start in 2014 coincided with Wizards Coach Scott Brooks’s time in Oklahoma City. Brooks was fired as the Thunder’s head coach after the 2014-15 season but came to the Wizards in April 2016. Now reunited in Washington, Brooks recalled Christian as a sharp basketball mind even in his late 20s.
“He has great experience in the G League. He’s been grinding the last four years of trying to improve their players and he’s had success with it,” Brooks said. “You could just tell that he loves the game.”
Christian’s habit of breaking down game video as an 11-year-old — he used to love watching Maryland’s Juan Dixon and Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves because he could identify with the passion and fight of smaller guards — still shows in his current mind-set. He said he focuses on the details, which allows him to stay in the moment.
“It’s a term that I like to use: Be where your feet are,” Christian said. “And I think young players working on those skills of being where their feet are on a daily basis will help them get to where they need to get to in the long run. But even as people, as coaches, it’s so easy to get lost in ‘what’s next?’ … I’m just a living testament of being able to be where my feet are no matter where my situation seems to be leading me.”
The same maxim holds true for Mensah-Bonsu.
“Pops is very well-rounded,” said Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards’ president of basketball operations. “He brings over 10 years of experience . . . obviously he’s played basketball at GW so he’s familiar with this area and he’s committed to making a difference in the community.”
A true journeyman, Mensah-Bonsu went undrafted out of GW but played professionally for five NBA teams, made stops with G League teams and spent seven years overseas. The Wizards gave Mensah-Bonsu a training camp invitation in 2013, but the team already had 15 players under contract and had to cut him before the start of the season. Two years later, Mensah-Bonsu’s playing career effectively came to an end when he was issued a two-year ban in Greece for failing a drug test. In a statement given at the time, Mensah-Bonsu said he suffered from attention-deficit disorder and had taken Adderall that was prescribed to him by a doctor affiliated with the Denver Nuggets.
Since retiring in 2015, Mensah-Bonsu has maintained a place in pro basketball. He spent a year working as a regional representative with the National Basketball Players Association before joining the San Antonio Spurs in 2016 as an advance pro scout.
“Since I retired I always wanted to take the road less traveled in regards to life after basketball,” Mensah-Bonsu said.
While in his previous role with the NBPA, Mensah-Bonsu remembers how he would advise current players to consider executive positions after retirement.
“I felt like there was a hole. I felt like we needed more former players in the front office, especially African or African American players too,” he said. “Instead of me always telling guys to do it, I ended up being the example I wanted those guys to be.”
Along with Christian and Mensah-Bonsu, the Go-Go has named Scott Schroeder as assistant general manager. For the past 12 years, Schroeder has held various jobs around the G League and most recently worked as director of basketball operations with the Los Angeles Clippers’ affiliate.
With the core of the leadership team in place, the Go-Go still must finalize hires for the rest of the coaching staff as well as prepare for the G League expansion draft on Aug. 22 and upcoming local tryouts.
The Go-Go has one roster player in forward Devin Robinson, who will enter his second season under a two-way contract. Under this deal, Robinson will spend the majority of the year in the G League and no more than 45 days with the parent Wizards. Washington has an open roster spot for another two-way contract but according to the newly minted GM, the team is in no hurry to sign another player for that role.
“That’s all up in the air,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “We’re not pressed or rushed to find a two-way guy now. I think when the time is right and we see the proper player that fits that mold or bill for us, we’ll make that move, but at this point we really want to be calculated in how we put this team together. I know we want this team to embody the D.C. culture, the D.C. mind-set.”