Here’s what makes Tommy Sheppard a potential front runner for the Washington Wizards’ open general manager job.
He’s already making calls from inside the Wizards house.
Thursday marks one month since Wizards owner Ted Leonsis fired longtime team president Ernie Grunfeld and named Sheppard, the team’s VP of Basketball Operations, the interim head of the front office.
While outside candidates are stopping by for interviews, Sheppard is running the show, in what is essentially a one month (and counting) job interview.
Danny Ferry, Troy Weaver and Gersson Rojas all interviewed with the organization this week, according to reports. That means perhaps a couple of hour’s worth of face time with Leonsis.
The scouts and staff on the payroll are not sitting around idle ahead of the June 20 NBA Draft. The new guy in charge who’s interviewed for other GM jobs and patiently waited a decade-plus for a shot is minding the store.
The Wizards scouted the Portsmouth Invitational, the annual showcase for seniors entering the professional ranks. From this player pool and others, Washington will invite players for formal workouts as the organization searches for Summer League additions, G-League hopefuls and, ideally, talents eventually worthy of a training camp invitation.
The NBA world heads to Chicago mid-May. The inaugural three-day G-League Elite Camp tips off a week that includes the draft lottery and the Combine.
That’s plenty of scouting and interviewing players ranging from elite talents to hopefuls. The Wizards aren’t waiting for the last second before preparing. They've also made a few minor roster moves already.
Ahead of their final day of the regular season, Washington retained two-way contract guard Jordan McRae with a one-year, NBA contract, and signed G-League guard Tarik Phillip for the 2019-20 season.
The team took swift action last month by announcing it would not bring back Devin Robinson for a third year with the organization following the forward’s arrest outside a D.C. nightclub. No individual’s name appeared shown in the brief statement announcing the decision, but someone made the final judgment.
For the first time in 16 years with Washington, Sheppard, who entered the NBA in 1994 on the public relations side, is the (interim) front man.
Shortly after the front office change, NBC Sports’ NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh wrote, “The Wizards have made it clear: They don’t see Sheppard as Ernie 2.0.”
Several league sources outside the organization echoed that take.
“I can easily separate Tommy from Ernie,” a prominent NBA agent told NBC Sports Washington. “Tommy had a job to do. He did it, but he’s his own man.”
Moving Sheppard into the lead role would put greater emphasis on analytics and other innovative methods. The Wizards routinely traded away second-round picks under Grunfeld. There’s a sense a full 180-degree turn could occur under Sheppard with Washington aggressively seeking out second-round selections under the right circumstances.
Whether at work or elsewhere, Sheppard’s greatest strength lies in his relationships.
“I love Tommy Sheppard. I don’t have one bad thing to say,” former Wizards center Marcin Gortat told NBC Sports Washington.
Gortat, effectively speaking for numerous sources from across all aspects of the league, spent five seasons in Washington before a trade last summer to the Los Angeles Clippers. During that time, the veteran center developed a strong bond with Sheppard, who made trips overseas during the off-season to Gortat’s basketball camps in Poland.
“Positive, very encouraging,” Gortat said of his pre-game and general interactions with Sheppard. “He would ask about (your interests) because he was always interested not only about you as a basketball player but a human being.”
Gortat also revealed Sheppard could play the heavy when needed.
Anyone that follows the 6-foot-11 Gortat on social media knows he’s not afraid to challenge Twitter trolls when they enter his space. But it was Sheppard who told him to tone it down when necessary.
“[Tommy] was the only one who would come to me and really raise his voice and yell at me. ‘What the hell are you doing? This is too much!’” Gortat said.
Gortat appreciated Sheppard’s straightforward nature in these spots.
“That’s when I really respected him. He didn’t (sugarcoat). He would come to me man to man and tell me the truth,” Gortat said. “An hour later, we’re having lunch, and we’re moving forward. He’s phenomenal dealing with relationships. … Ted Leonsis should definitely look at Tommy Sheppard.”
Presumably, that’s what Leonsis has done for the last month. Sheppard had his formal interview, just like other candidates. Unlike Ferry, Weaver and Rosas, who was hired Wednesday to head the Timberwolves’ front office, Sheppard didn’t leave the meeting and presumably hop on a plane. Well, unless there was a domestic or international prospect to scout. This basketball grinder does that.
As the NBA calendar moves toward the May 14 draft lottery, time is starting to work against the Wizards. Plans must be created, the front office staff organized.
Sheppard is doing both. That’s his job, at least for now.
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