As Tommy Sheppard begins his tenure as the Washington Wizards’ general manager, his promotion represents only a fraction of a wide-ranging overhaul of the franchise’s basketball operations department.
The Monumental Sports & Entertainment ownership group plans to announce that Sheppard will be a basketball-focused executive overseeing not only the Wizards and G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go but also esports team District Gaming, according to several people with knowledge of the team’s plans.
Although Sheppard has not yet signed a contract, he and Ted Leonsis, founder and chief executive of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, are expected to agree to terms before the announcement, according to a person close to the situation. Sheppard, 50, has been behind all of Washington’s major offseason moves since being named interim president of basketball operations April 2.
Sheppard’s responsibilities as general manager, especially as it relates to the Wizards, will remain the same. Freed from the interim tag, Sheppard has the approval and budget from Leonsis to implement a one- to three-year vision that will attempt to propel the team past a disappointing 2018-19 season.
Last season, Washington finished 32-50 in a season defined by major injuries with a locker room filled with short-term players. Although all-star point guard John Wall dealt with bone spurs and later a debilitating Achilles’ tendon injury that could disrupt his entire 2019-20 season, the Wizards were also negatively affected by an older roster that performed as one of the worst defenses in the league. Many of those players were on the final year of their contracts.
This summer, Sheppard has made an effort to counter those problems. He has supplied the roster — through the draft, free agency and trades — with younger, developing players, presumably ones who will work harder. Although Sheppard acquired three players in their 30s (Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith and CJ Miles), the Wizards also re-signed or added 10 players who are 26 or younger, and most of these core players are on multiyear deals.
With a younger roster, the franchise’s G League affiliate will hold even more significance. During the Go-Go’s inaugural season, the Wizards sent players such as Troy Brown Jr. and Thomas Bryant to the team for brief assignments. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, Washington has already designated rookie Garrison Mathews to a two-way deal and planned for rookie Justin Robinson to develop with the Go-Go.
Inside the front office, the vision will continue as the Wizards intend to add to their staff. Under Sheppard, Washington has designs on creating a pro personnel staff that resembles the work done by college scouts, who spend the season preparing for the draft. The pro personnel staff will travel to NBA and G League games as well as international matchups with the goal of treating free agency like the draft — a year-long process to find potential players to add to the Wizards’ upcoming roster.
Also, in Sheppard’s enhanced role he will guide the franchise’s NBA2K team.
Sheppard, who has worked in sports for more than half of his life, has a more eclectic résumé than most general managers. With a background in public relations, the Summer Olympics and domestic and international scouting, Sheppard has a wide network of information and resources. Since April, Sheppard has impressed Leonsis as a progressive, forward-thinking basketball mind, and during their meetings Sheppard recognized the importance of the esports movement, according to people familiar with their conversations.
However, Sheppard’s most pressing concern will be the Wizards. In the coming days, the team is expected to finalize plans for the coaching staff. According to several people who are close to the situation, the team will promote Jarell Christian, the former G League coach, to join Coach Scott Brooks’s staff. During his three years in Washington, Brooks has led a relatively small group of five assistants, but the Wizards have recently had discussions with Michael Longabardi, a defensive-minded coach from the Cleveland Cavaliers, to become another addition.