As a kid, Tommy Sheppard dreamed of one day being Julius Erving. For the last 10 years, he’s been trying to find the next Dr. J.
Sheppard, the Washington Wizards’ vice president of basketball administration, is helping rebuild an organization that had become a national laughing-stock and get it back to the playoffs.
“We’re definitely on the right track,” Sheppard, former sports information director at UNLV, said while in town to watch his team compete in the NBA Summer League. “Our season ticket renewals are up. There’s great anticipation on the part of our fans. We’re bringing in excellent players with strong character. We had some success during the second half of the season. So we’re very excited about our future.”
The Wizards began a downward spiral after making the playoffs in 2008. They hit bottom on Dec. 21, 2009 when teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton got into an argument over a debt from a card game. As it escalated, both Arenas and Crittenton grabbed guns from out of their lockers.
The incident made national headlines. The team that had dropped the Bullets nickname 12 years earlier to distance itself from violence now had guns in the locker room.
A thorough housecleaning was in order.
“It wasn’t a rebuild as much as it was a demolition,” Sheppard said. “We basically hit the reset button.”
With the first pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the Wizards took point guard John Wall. They took forwards Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton in the first round in 2011, guard Bradley Beal last year, and Georgetown forward Otto Porter with the No. 3 overall pick this year.
“We want talent but we also want character,” Sheppard said. “The two do cross paths.”
Sheppard, who spent three years in UNLV’s sports information department before embarking upon his NBA journey in 1994 with the Denver Nuggets, said one thing about his time in Las Vegas has always stuck with him.
“I learned that to be successful, you have to have great communications with the people you work with,” he said. “Being around coach (Jerry) Tarkanian, coach (Tim) Grgurich, (men’s golf) coach Dwaine Knight, they all have had great success because they can communicate with their players.
“I’ve never forgotten that and I try to apply that to what I do with the Wizards.”
President and general manager Ernie Grunfeld said Sheppard had fit in well with Washington’s organization, which underwent a change of ownership after Abe Pollin died in 2009 and Ted Leonsis bought the team in 2010.
“He’s very committed and very knowledgeable,” said Grunfeld, who has been in charge of the Wizards’ basketball operations since 2003. “He’s been with us for 10 years and he’s grown a lot. He’s very forward-thinking.”
Sheppard said the job has become far more challenging with the NBA’s salary cap and tax rules, the broadening of the game internationally and the increased influence of statistical analysis on the player evaluation process.
“There’s a lot to stay on top of, no question,” Sheppard, 45, said. “All the (statistical data) we use in our evaluations is not a trend, but a tool. It’s not a compass that points you to an exact spot. You still have to watch a guy in person and not just depend solely on tape. You still have to get to know him as a person. All the old-fashioned ways of evaluating a player still applies today.”
Wall, the team’s captain, missed the first 33 games last season. But Washington still made a run at a winning record and a playoff spot before a rash of late-season injuries short-circuited the Wizards, who finished 29-53.
“What we saw was when we had everybody healthy and together, we were a pretty good team,” Sheppard said. “Now, we’re adding Otto Porter, who we believe will be a star, and we’re hoping Jan (Vesely) has a breakout year.”
Porter has struggled in Las Vegas this week, but Vesely has played better than in the summer league a year ago.
Sheppard believes things are headed in the right direction for the Wizards, who are 0-2 in the summer league and face Denver at 7 p.m. today in Cox Pavilion before the tournament gets under way Wednesday.
“I’m very excited about where we’re going,” Sheppard said. “We have great ownership. Mr. Leonsis wants to win and he wants to do it the right way so we’ll have success for years to come. We’ve got great players in the organization and great people coaching them. I’m just glad to be playing a small role in this.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.