When Tomás Satoransky entered Tuesday’s contest against the Detroit Pistons, he marked the seventh player born outside the U.S. to appear in a game for the Wizards this season. Washington hopes he will soon be followed by trade deadline acquisition Kristaps Porzingis, who once cleared to return from his knee injury will help the Wizards tie their franchise record set just last year for the most international players to suit up for them in a season.
The Wizards have seen a spike in their international presence in recent years, rostering at least seven such players each of the last three seasons after never playing more than five in a season in their first 58 years of existence. It’s no coincidence that trend has coincided with the tenure of general manager Tommy Sheppard, who’s often tapped into his background in international scouting for roster construction.
“If there's talent all over the world, it's your job to go find it. It's never intentional,” Sheppard told NBC Sports Washington in 2020. “I'll go anywhere in the world where there's basketball. It doesn't bother me at all.”
As their roster currently stands, the Wizards have six international players under contract: Porzingis (born in Latvia), Satoransky (Czech Republic), Deni Avdija (Israel), Rui Hachimura (Japan), Raul Neto (Brazil) and two-way player Joel Ayayi (France). Only three teams in the NBA have more. The Wizards have also gotten minutes out of Davis Bertans (Latvia), who’s now with the Dallas Mavericks, and Jaime Echenique (Colombia), currently playing for their G-League affiliate.
The San Antonio Spurs are widely credited for jumpstarting the NBA’s international movement under head coach Gregg Popovich. They drafted Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 and built a dynasty around him, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. In 2012, the Spurs become the first team in league history to list eight international players on their opening-night roster.
Washington would love to reach the heights of the Spurs — 22 consecutive playoff appearances with five NBA titles — but still has a long way to go as a team that’s only just returned to the postseason last year for the first time in three seasons. Sheppard is certainly following Popovich’s blueprint, however, taking Avdija and Hachimura with first-round picks in back-to-back years and trading for Porzingis, who will be the first international player with an All-Star appearance to play for the Wizards.
Prior to 2019, the Wizards had only ever used two first-round picks on international talent with little success. They selected Jan Vesely out of the Czech Republic with the No. 6 overall pick in 2011, but he fell out of the league after just three years. Washington got even less out of 2006 No. 18 overall pick and Ukrainian native Oleksiy Pecherov, who they traded two seasons into his career.
So far, their selections of Avdija and Hachimura have already proven to be much more fruitful. Avdija has been a key member of the Wizards’ rotation this season, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Hachimura is averaging 12.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game thus far in his career. Both players are integral to the Wizards’ future as a team that’s been rebuilding its roster on the fly.
The Wizards’ ceiling this season is handicapped due to the loss of Bradley Beal to a wrist injury. But with Porzingis locked up through next season — and holding a player option for 2023-24 — Washington has its first real chance to be a contending team built around international star talent and depth in the not-so-distant future.