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Evaluating Tommy Sheppard’s first year as the Wizards GM: a conversation, part 2

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Broom and Rubinstein discuss Sheppard’s freshman year moves, part 2

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

This is Part 2 of a discussion between Broom and Rubinstein, evaluating Tommy Sheppard’s first year as GM. Here is Part 1.

KEVIN BROOM: After a suitable hiatus to get hydrated and sterilized, let’s get into the rest of Tommy Sheppard’s personnel moves since he became general manager.

YANIR RUBINSTEIN: Dude, I’m game.

KB: Let’s start with the draft. With the 9th pick, Sheppard took Rui Hachimura and they bought a second rounder to select Admiral Schofield. Thoughts?

YR: First things first — let’s talk Hachimura.

KB: So dramatic.

YR: Lol. After all, it was the first time Washington drafted in the single digits since...Otto Porter, Jr. in 2013! So it was a big thing for a club so desperately in need of young talent.

KB: True, true. Your thoughts then?

YR: Personally, I think this pick was good, albeit a bit conservative.

KB: Elaborate, s’il vouz plait.

Editor’s note: Kevin does not speak French.

YR: Avec plaisir. First, it was pure brilliance from the marketing point of view, which is where Tommy hails from: the Wizards have established themselves as Japan’s NBA team this year with media, sponsorships, and other business ventures.

And this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg if Rui develops into a solid starter, let alone a fringe All-Star level player later this decade.

Throw in the Cherry Blossom connection D.C. already has with Japan and you can almost see the Wizards changing their name to the Washington Blossoms in a few years to get rid of the Michael Jordan-Ernie Grunfeld-Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton era curse.

But from the wheeling-and-dealing point of view I do feel that Tommy left some on the table. You just know that the Danny Ainges of the world would have managed to trade down and still get Rui.

Speaking of Ainge, the C’s had the 14th, 20th, and 22nd picks in the first round alone. One can imagine a deal where the Wiz get the 14th and the 22nd pick in exchange for the 9th pick, and comfortably take Hachimura in the 14th slot and then get a useful piece, say a rim-protecting young center with the 22nd pick (speaking of trading down, Ainge did actually trade the 20th pick for the 24th and the 33rd...).

In most mocks Rui wasn’t going until late teens (and most post-draft analysis gave Sheppard grades in the C or D range for this pick) and it almost felt like Tommy had this great marketing plan he sold Ted on and just couldn’t take any chances with a draft day deal.

But coming back full circle to ownership, I put this one on Ted, actually. Let’s remember that Tommy still wasn’t given the permanent GM job at that point and Ted was publicly evaluating him. With more job security I believe Tommy might have actually tried to get more fancy here. But that’s me guessing. Your thoughts here?

KB: I was okay with picking Hachimura...sorta. My own predraft analysis had him ranked about where they took him. But, my analysis was a lot higher on Brandon Clarke. My preferred move was a trade down — not to take Hachimura though. I thought Clarke and Chuma Okeke were excellent prospects likely to be available after the lottery. Okeke went earlier than I expected. Still, a trade down would have been the right move.

And, I have to say, making a move to help international marketing would be #SoWizards. The basketball operations group shouldn’t be focused on that and it shouldn’t enter the player selection decision-making process unless literally everything else is equal. Let the basketball ops staff focus on basketball and then have the marketing team and ownership figure out how to sell the team and make money.

YR: What did you think of Admiral S? How do you feel that panned out? Specifically, any regrets for not snatching Bol Bol who was still available at 42nd (I believe he went 44th)?

KB: I didn’t like the pick much when they made it. He had a borderline draftable grade and I don’t understand buying a pick to take him. The theory of him — tough wing who defends and shoots threes — is great, the reality...not so much.

He was terrible this season when he got NBA minutes and below average in the G League. He’s young so he could work hard and improve, but guys who play like him as rookies don’t often become productive NBA players.

And yes, despite the character concerns, I’d rather they picked Bol Bol in that spot. Low risk with a high potential reward. Instead they went low risk/low reward. That’s the wrong kind of bet to make in the second round.

YR: Great minds think alike. What was your favorite draft move by Tommy?

KB: It actually wasn’t part of the draft — it came afterwards when Sheppard signed Garrison Mathews. I had him with a borderline draftable graded in my pre-draft analysis (a little ahead of Schofield), but I liked that they were in the market for a cheap young shooter. And Mathews provided some of the more entertaining moments of the season — wrecking the Heat and turning four-point plays because his unorthodox forward leap made it difficult for defenders trying to close him out.

YR: Mathews was a really nice pick-up. Great move. Though I was quite annoyed with how they shuttled him back and forth between the Go Go and the NBA. I mean, after hiring all these fancy new FO load management experts etc. they had Mathews play a crazy 9 games in 12 nights in the period December 26, 2019 – January 6, 2020 (including 5 (five!) straight nights to begin this stretch) at which point he got injured. Isn’t that a knock on the front office?

KB: There were some limits to what they could do with Mathews because he was on a two-way contract. Of course, they could have just cut Thomas and used his roster spot to convert Mathews to a full NBA contract.

I think the bigger factor with Mathews and injuries may end up being that unorthodox leap forward. It’s tough to defend, but it also creates some dangerous landing spots.

From one shooter to another, Sheppard’s best move of the offseason was swiping Davis Bertans from the Spurs. His no-conscience shot selection and elite accuracy made for some entertaining moments. I wrote early in the season they needed to get him more shots, and they did. But, entertaining as he was, did they screw up by not cashing him in for a future first round pick and/or younger prospects?

YR: Totally. That was a huge mistake. Again, it comes down to Leonsis wanting to quickly rebuild, with emphasis on quickly. As we discussed in Part 1, Tommy does not have the gravitas of Pat Riley or Danny Ainge and is mostly appeasing Leonsis. Which is why he’ll probably stay in the job for many years and why we’ll probably never see a championship under Sheppard-Leonsis.

KB: It’s tough to know what goes on behind closed doors. As in, is Leonsis bought into a reload because Sheppard convinced him it was possible? Or did Sheppard buy in because it’s what Leonsis wanted? My experience in talking with several different people involved with the team over my years covering and analyzing the team — they engage in plenty of magical thinking. Some of that comes from Leonsis, but a fair amount came from the basketball staff.

But, let’s get back to Latvians. First, I agree with you on Bertans. They should have traded him. Even with the great shooting, he’s a pretty average player and they’re going to have to pay him a big salary to keep him. They could have demanded a lot for him at the deadline. His trade value drops when his salary goes up.

Let’s go to his countryman and teammate. What do you think about Anzejs Pasecniks?

YR: Honestly, I’m surprised there is demand for him in the NBA. What do you think?

KB: It kinda depends on what job they want him to do. He’s a replacement level big man when he’s on the floor. But, they hired him mainly to be buddies with Bertans. Leaving aside whether re-signing Bertans is the right strategy, if Bertans re-signs then I guess Pasecniks will have done his job.

YR: Intersting, I didn’t think of that. Do you see a future for Gary Payton II with the Wizards?

KB: He’s a good NBA defender who desperately needs to develop an offensive game. Like, if he could just semi-reliably hit open jumpers, maybe he could stick as an end-of-rotation guard. But, he’ll be entering his age 28 season, which means whatever improvement he’s going to do probably already happened.

YR: One move I really liked by Sheppard was Jonathan Williams (and which I humbly like to think of as a move I anticipated). While he was on an injury hardship 10-day contract I wrote about JW an in-depth piece including why the Wizards should sign him on a longer-term contract. Am I exaggerating here and going on an ego-trip, as usual?

KB: Nope, he’s a springy big with limited ability, but he performed well in scant minutes. There’s a good argument he should have gotten the minutes they gave to Pasecniks.

YR: You’re preaching to the choir, dude. I love JW.

Let’s wrap up with Sheppard’s last trade: Isaiah Thomas for Jerome Robinson. We’ve already talked Thomas. What’s your assessment of Robinson?

KB: So, roughly a decade ago, I put together a stat-based draft analysis tool. Among the 1,000-plus college and international players I’ve evaluated, Robinson ranks near the bottom. I had him with a “don’t draft” grade. Players like that rarely become good professionals — the only real exception is J.J. Redick, who did almost nothing at Duke except shoot.

Robinson just isn’t much good. He wasn’t productive in college. He’s been pretty bad in limited NBA minutes. That said, they got him for nothing so it’s worth giving him an offseason and a training camp to see if he’ll put in the work and get better. But, I’d be surprised if he’s anything more than a bench-warmer. I expect he’ll be playing overseas in a couple years.

YR: Maybe he has a Latvian grandmother?

KB: Learning Latvian could be another route to sticking with the Wizards. Is Babbel having a sale?

YR: I’m buying!

I think there is one, big, big, elephant in the room that nobody in the “corporate” media wants to really touch on and yours truly reported on fervently more than once in the past.

KB: Is this a conspiracy theory?!

YR: I wish. Well, maybe. A GM’s single most important decision aside from selecting who to draft is selecting who to stand on the sidelines. No?

KB: You do have a point. How is Scott Brooks still coaching this team if Tommy wants a change in culture?

YR: Look, when the shit was hitting the fan in the 2018-19 season many openly wrote about Brooks being on the hot-seat. If Ernie was still the GM it is almost certain Brooks would be gone by now. Brooks is a great guy, and I think he would be a great assistant coach, but it would have been really refreshing to see a new face coaching. Heck, in a rebuild year why not let a young coach (on a humble contract) such as Ryan Richman or Chris Fleming have their go at head coaching and maybe you discover a great young coach?

Now, I do think that letting Brooks stay this year was a purely financial move, but at the same time, it was a move that reflected the organization isn’t serious about a culture change.

But it isn’t too late to correct. Tommy’s real test is whether he will let Brooks walk now or actually do the unbelievable and give him a contract extension. I do think Tommy could actually prove the naysayers wrong and show leadership by letting Brooks go and hiring a coach like Kenny Atkinson with a proven and very impressive record of culture change and rebuild during years of scarce draft assets. Atkinson is available now due to unique circumstances (story for another time) and passing up the opportunity to hire Atkinson now would be nothing less than a huge mistake, in my opinion.

However, I have serious doubts something like that would happen. As I wrote in length the complicating detail (that many outlets do not report) is that Brooks and Sheppard share the same all-powerful agent so it seems they are here to ride the waves in tandem. Your take?

KB: I thought Brooks would be a solid upgrade from Randy Wittman and that just hasn’t been the case — and not because hindsight tells me Wittman was better than I thought. My preference wouldn’t be Atkinson, though. He did okay helping some of the Nets youngsters develop, but he’s relatively weak on Xs and Os and game management.

My preference when looking at coaches has long been to seek out guys who have been successful at the minor league level and bring them up. There have been a number of good NBA coaches who fit this profile. Skip the retread — go hire the next hot candidate. And with Sheppard’s vast network, he should have a sense for who that is.