WASHINGTON -- Back in the summer of 2019, when Tommy Sheppard was the Wizards' interim general manager, he was both operating in the position and interviewing for the full-time job at the same time. He presented chairman Ted Leonsis with a year-by-year, step-by-step plan designed to build Washington into a contender with the type of sustainability not enjoyed by the franchise in decades.
Sheppard told Leonsis they needed to "turn the roster over" with a specific criteria in mind. Most important to that plan was to not take any shortcuts. They needed to bring the right people into the front office and in other areas of the organization and take their time doing things the right way.
Following their best start to a season since 1974-75, Sheppard was given a promotion to team president as well as a multi-year contract extension on Wednesday morning. The plan, now in Year 3, is working.
"I’m just so grateful and I’m very humbled. I think it’s a reflection that we have good people here. I’m very, very grateful for all of them," Sheppard told NBC Sports Washington in a phone conversation.
"The thing I look forward to most every day is the people I work with, the people and the staff. I’m very grateful to Ted and his belief and his support. I look forward to greater days ahead."
Sheppard admits it wasn't easy every step of the way, just to get to this point, which he hopes is only the beginning of their success. They went 25-47 in 2019-20 and took a step forward last season to make the playoffs, but only after starting the year 17-32 and overcoming a widespread coronavirus outbreak.
Sheppard has had to make a series of difficult decisions over the past two years, most notably by trading beloved franchise cornerstone John Wall. It was an unpopular move at the time, but now with the way things have worked out, it would be hard to argue against the move in retrospect. They essentially turned his supermax contract into five players; Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Holiday and Isaiah Todd.
The first four of those players listed have been key members of the team's rotation this year, which has produced the best record in the Eastern Conference. But Sheppard's fingerprints are seen all over the roster, including with starting center Daniel Gafford, who was acquired in a lopsided trade last March from the Chicago Bulls.
The Wizards went 17-6 in games Gafford played last season and are now 8-3 in the ones he's appeared in this year. That combines to 25-9.
"I have felt that momentum continue," Sheppard said.
Gafford is just one of a growing collection of young players developing in the Wizards' system, which Sheppard considers a foundation to build off of. He also mentioned the development of 2020 ninth overall pick Deni Avdija and the impending return of Rui Hachimura, their 2019 first round selection.
"The great thing about rookies is they get older and they get better in their second year. I think we’re starting to see that with Deni. We can’t wait to get Rui back, Thomas Bryant back, Davis [Bertans] back and have a whole team so we can really look at what we have out there," Sheppard said.
Sheppard's reaction to his promotion was overflowing praise for his colleagues. He said the team's expanding analytics department makes his job "so much easier." He revealed that he gave his entire staff contract extensions before the season began. Assistant GM Brett Greenberg, senior director of pro personnel Antawn Jamison, VP of college personnel Frank Ross and many others all got re-upped.
Sheppard also brought up new head coach Wes Unseld Jr., saying he's the "guy that makes it go." It's a team effort for the Wizards and Sheppard is happy that everyone is able to share in the progress.
"If we just stick to the plan and the commitment to development, good things will happen. You can’t shortchange any part of the process. That’s the one thing that makes this business tough because I know how hard it is to maybe want to get that sugar rush, the quick fix, but those things always end up crumbling," he said.
"You have to take some hits. I think we took plenty of hits the first year. There’s always going to be turbulence ahead, no matter what you do in a long season, but we’re seeing growth."
Hear more from Wizards president Tommy Sheppard before Wizards vs. Hornets Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m.