Villanova Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright knew that Tommy Sheppard had a bright future in basketball when the two met while Wright was on Rollie Massimino’s staff at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the early 1990s.
After all, Sheppard wasn’t the typical sports information director.
“He was always on top of our recruiting and went far beyond anything any sports information director would do. He did everything for us,” Wright said. “He was our media relations guy. He did our recruiting videos. He helped us in recruiting.”
Sheppard was clearly destined for big things. The basketball gods decided that meant that Sheppard, after 24 years of moving up and getting noticed in NBA circles, would be the general manager of the Washington Wizards.
Sheppard was named the Wizards’ interim general manager in April 2019 after his boss, long-time GM Ernie Grunfeld, was finally fired by owner Ted Leonsis after 16 years of often-embarrassing mismanagement of the basketball team.
A few months later — after several candidates blew the Wizards off and an aborted attempt to lure Toronto Raptors executive Masai Ujiri nearly got the organization in hot water – Sheppard, the last guy in the room, was hired as the permanent GM.
Some might say the gods must be crazy. After all, running a basketball franchise that had made losing such a tradition for decades — they last won 50 games when Sheppard was 10 years old — hardly seemed like a reward for hard work.
But the Albuquerque, New Mexico, native has something to go along with his hard work that might even trump the long-embedded culture of losing.
“Tommy has the most unique ability to work hard, compete and be himself — which is a character — and still be really likable,” said Wright, who remains friends with Sheppard. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him. You meet people from all over the world that know him in basketball.”
Leonsis must like Sheppard — as well he should. On Wednesday, the Wizards owner announced that the 52-year-old Sheppard — who was believed to be in the final year of a three-year contract — was given a multi-year contract extension and named team president, as well as GM.
Sashi Brown, the former executive vice president of the Cleveland Browns who had been hired by Leonsis as Monumental Sports chief planning and operating officer in 2019, was promoted to president of Monumental Basketball and special advisor to Leonsis.
“Tommy has effectively improved our team each year of his tenure by following the plan he laid out to us as his vision when we hired him as general manager and Sashi has been instrumental in making us a leader in analytics, research and player engagement while efficiently streamlining operations across all of our basketball teams and venues,” Leonsis said in a release issued by the organization.
“Their combined efforts have put us in a position to compete now with an exciting and hard-working team while also having the flexibility to execute our long-term strategy of building a championship program that is a leader in the community.”
Sheppard managed to convince another team — the Houston Rockets — to take a diminished John Wall and his albatross $170 million contract extension, in exchange for the Rockets’ headache, Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook played one amusing season for Washington — winning the NBA’s triple-double banner and trying to convince Bradley Beal to leave — before Sheppard then transformed him and the $90 million remaining on his deal in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers, along with two future second-round draft picks, into Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a first-round pick. He continued to transform the team this past offseason by acquiring Aaron Holiday from the Indiana Pacers. They also obtained guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
They would join Daniel Gafford, a strong presence in the middle who Sheppard stole from Chicago in 2020, and last year’s first-round draft choice, Deni Avdija. Now Sheppard has a smart, veteran team to surround his favorite player, Beal. (Their 2019 draft choice, Rui Hachimura, who was impressive in the final months of last season, remains sidelined with a mysterious malady).
Sheppard put the final touch on this change when he fired coach Scott Brooks and hired Wes Unseld, Jr., the son of franchise icon Wes Unseld. So far, Unseld appears to have brought a sense of discipline and defensive commitment not seen in this organization in decades.
The team Sheppard assembled to take the court in this season has gotten off to an impressive 10-4 record, their best start since the 1974-75 season, putting them on top of the Eastern Conference, with signature wins over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and a comeback victory on the road over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Wright didn’t see Sheppard as an NBA general manager someday when they were together in Las Vegas. But once the former SID went into the league in 1994 with the Denver Nuggets, Wright saw the path to the top.
“I knew he had it, but once I saw it translated to the NBA, and I knew his energy, his intelligence and his personality, I really did think he would be a GM one day,” Wright said. “I know his work ethic. I know his drive. I knew it would happen one day.”
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.