When Tim Connelly, the Denver Nuggets’ president of basketball operations, traveled to Washington last weekend to discuss the same title with the Wizards, a role many league insiders had predicted would be his, the man currently in the position was doing the job across the Atlantic Ocean.
Tommy Sheppard, who has controlled the team’s basketball side on an interim basis since Ernie Grunfeld’s dismissal April 2, attended the EuroLeague Final Four in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, according to a person with knowledge of his schedule. Before the international trip, Sheppard watched scrimmages at the NBA combine. There, he also led a large Wizards contingent of coaches and front-office staffers through all-day interviews with prospective picks inside a downtown Chicago hotel suite. One draft hopeful described Washington’s interview as a highlight among the drone of meetings.
While rumors have swirled about the Wizards targeting others for the top role, Sheppard has quietly gone about the job that may ultimately go to someone else. When asked about Sheppard’s interim situation at the combine last week, Coach Scott Brooks downplayed its potential for awkwardness.
“I’ve been in the league long enough, I’ve probably seen just about everything, every scenario,” Brooks said. “Ted [Leonsis] is going to make a decision, and I trust that decision is going to be the best for the program moving forward. But as of right now, Tommy’s doing a great job, and he’s leading the group, and we all feel comfortable with what’s going on.”
As Leonsis, the Wizards’ majority owner, made an official play for Connelly last week by extending an invitation to his home, many people around the NBA were convinced that Washington’s nearly two-month executive search had ended. Though terms were not discussed at that initial meeting, Leonsis offered Connelly a contract Sunday to become the next president. Connelly opted to remain in Denver.
Although the Wizards have conducted multiple interviews with three candidates — Sheppard, Oklahoma City vice president Troy Weaver and former Cleveland and Atlanta GM Danny Ferry — the team appears to be in no rush to name a permanent president. The delay can only favor the man currently in the position.
Sheppard, 50, had worked the past 16 years under Grunfeld, the executive who constructed two franchise rebuilds but also attracted the ire of a long-suffering fan base. Essentially, Sheppard has been afforded a seven-week interview to prove he is not Grunfeld.
During Grunfeld’s reign, the Wizards have been accused of lacking steady and universal discipline as well as creating a culture without accountability. Sheppard didn’t waste an opportunity to show the type of culture he wants to create when fringe player Devin Robinson was arrested April 13 for fighting the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Mills outside of a nightclub. In a brief but strongly worded statement, the team announced it would not extend a qualifying offer to Robinson in free agency. Although Robinson appeared in only eight games over two seasons, the team made a public stand by expressing its “disappointment."
It was a minor yet decisive step in Sheppard distancing himself from the previous way of doing things.
While in Chicago, Sheppard turned into an evaluator while meeting with prospects. Michigan’s Jordan Poole recalled his interview with the Wizards with a smile as the group expressed as much interest in his life as it did his basketball skills.
“It was a really good interview,” Poole said. “Amazing coaching staff, they asked a lot of tough questions, a lot of good questions, but I feel like I came out with a really positive outcome.”
Virginia’s Ty Jerome recalled the Wizards splitting up the questions during his meeting but Sheppard leading the charge.
“I loved that interview. I love all my interviews, but that one stood out a ton,” Jerome said. “Just how outgoing they were, how welcoming they were, and they just encouraged me to be authentic. They want to see your true self. . . . I really liked that interview a lot.”
Still, likely because of the unsettled situation in the front office, the Wizards will not host pre-draft workouts until the start of June. Other teams already have held workouts.
Following the combine, Sheppard jetted to Spain where he became an international scout. The EuroLeague Final Four has featured Europe’s best players and — for better or worse — has loomed in Wizards lore as the place where the team discovered its most infamous international prospect, Jan Vesely. In 2011, Washington drafted Vesely with the sixth pick but he turned into a bust, appearing in only 141 games with the team over 3½ seasons. Although Vesely flamed out in the NBA, his name symbolizing the Wizards’ litany of missteps , he returned overseas to a prosperous career and was named this season’s EuroLeague MVP.
Last weekend, it was Sheppard’s job to find a Vesely-type who would thrive in the NBA. Or the next Tomas Satoransky, whom the Wizards discovered when he was 16, to carry on the team’s draft-and-stash system. The Wizards selected Satoransky in 2012 but did not bring him to the United States until the 2016-17 season. Over the past two years, he has filled in as the starter while John Wall has battled injuries. Previous second-round picks Aaron White and Issuf Sanon are receiving seasoning in Europe.
The same day Connelly received his offer, CSKA Moscow was crowned the EuroLeague champions and Sheppard was headed back to Washington. How long he stays with the Wizards remains to be seen.