Pro sports executives often talk about strategies for success, offering their opinions on what it takes to build winning teams.
Tommy Sheppard, the Washington Wizards’ new general manager, certainly knows that excellent players are needed to lead his team to victories. But his vision for the team’s path to success also includes something that might best be described as an intangible element: relationships.
Sheppard repeated the word “relationships” numerous times during an exclusive interview with Hoop Scoop in late September. This provided an inside look at Sheppard’s management style early on in his tenure, e.g. before presiding over the team’s day-to-day operations during an actual season.
The GM’s relationship with rookie forward Rui Hachimura can, of course, have a major impact on the team’s current season and future plans.
Which is why Sheppard has diligently worked to be much more than a figurehead in a suit and tie within the Washington organization. He’s already taken the time to establish a relationship with Hachimura, most notably during a 14-day trip to Japan and China in August and September that concluded with several days in Shanghai to see the Akatsuki Five compete at the FIBA World Cup.
As the Wizards were preparing for the 82-game regular season, which begins on Wednesday (a Thursday sports holiday of sorts in Japan) on the road against the Dallas Mavericks, Sheppard explained why he invested 14 days of his summer to start developing a rapport with Rui, including meals, hanging out and discussions about various things.
Sheppard witnessed the electric atmosphere at Saitama Super Arena on Aug. 24, when Japan earned an 86-83 victory over Germany, with Hachimura scoring 31 points in a pre-World Cup contest.
“To see all the crowd together that day, it was just a little bit of a snapshot of what’s coming,” Sheppard noted.
Sheppard and Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who’s entering his fourth season at the helm, will collaborate on managing expectations for the Toyama native.
Perhaps the preseason presented a telling sign of how they plan to use him this season.
Hachimura started all four exhibition games he played in, averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 22 minutes.
Building ties with the JBA
Return to August for a moment to gain additional background on how Sheppard is cultivating his relationship with Hachimura. To do so in a sincere manner, Sheppard has made the effort to build strong ties with Japan men’s national team coach Julio Lamas and Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino, the Japan Basketball Association’s technical director.
Clearly, Sheppard respects what they’ve accomplished and the way they’ve reinvigorated the national team.
Those meetings provided a chance to “map out what our goals and our expectations are as we share Rui moving forward,” Sheppard stated.
He elaborated: “We always support our players playing with their international team and I’m really excited for Rui, but he also plays for the Washington Wizards and we have to be respectful of each other’s needs in knowing where his career is going and we’ll always have a great relationship if we have that mutual consideration for each other.”
Lamas and Higashino both plan to attend some Wizards games during Hachimura’s rookie campaign, and Sheppard is looking forward to seeing them.
“I think the relationship has to be maintained and constant dialogue,” Sheppard said. “It’s a genuine affinity for each other.”
Sheppard may mention in private what he hopes Hachimura will accomplish this season in terms of numbers.
But for public consumption he addressed the topic in a different way.
“First and foremost, I think putting a number on anything with him (isn’t germane),” said the native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who worked 17 years in Washington’s front office before being named Ernie Grunfeld’s successor in July. “I don’t want to create pressure for him, but what I’d like to see is him be able to earn minutes, play the majority of our games, to stay healthy throughout (the season) and just see him continue to get better at both ends of the floor.
“The NBA is a very difficult league the first couple of years. You have to go through the process. There’s definitely not a video tape you can watch, or you can’t microwave the results. You just have to go through this and learn, and that’s something that I think he has a very high capacity for learning, very intelligent. Cognitive testing with him, he shows to be somebody that’s a very great learner and so far everything he’s done has shown us that that’s been verified, and it’s just going to continue to get better.”
Early impressions of Rui
Hachimura was on Sheppard’s radar for several years before the Wizards, who went 32-50 last season, made him the No. 9 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft in June. He grabbed Sheppard’s attention by showcasing his athleticism and potential at the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic international game in New York and also the 2016 Basketball Without Borders Global Camp in Toronto.
Recalling those events before Hachimura’s rise to stardom at Gonzaga University, Sheppard had this to say: “My impression was this guy’s got tremendous potential. He’s got a great skill set. He’s got a great frame. I liked how hard he played, how into the game he was. Shots come and go. Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t. But the effort he (displayed), he played hard, he had a great motor, and those things resonate. They translate. They come with you wherever you go.”
According to Sheppard, Hachimura’s skills and on-court personality “made him very attractive at that age. You kind of look and you say, ‘Wow, that’s somebody that we need to follow,’ and we followed him.
“We’re very fortunate that he was there when we drafted and very grateful that he’s here with the Wizards.”
In three seasons at Gonzaga, Hachimura improved by leaps and bounds. He developed into a well-known star. He increased his scoring average from 2.6 to 11.6 to 19.7 in his three college seasons. As a junior, he played a pivotal role in Gonzaga’s triumph over then-No. 1-ranked Duke University at the Maui Invitational. And he was a 2019 Consensus First Team All-American and the West Coast Conference Player of the Year before becoming the first Japanese ever chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft.
The Wizards recently hired bilingual sports journalist Zac Ikuma, who spent the past seven years as an NPB play-by-play announcer, as their first Japanese digital correspondent. It’s an opportunity for the Wizards and Ikuma to elevate the overall narrative and storylines surrounding Hachimura’s rookie season.
“We are cognizant of his popularity and how important he is to the nation and we want to make sure that we do everything we can to deliver opportunities for people to follow him,” Sheppard said of Hachimura.
“That’s certainly an intention of being able to deliver connectivity to those fans. Absolutely. And we have to be wise on how we (do it) — all the different platforms where fans can consume information about their favorite players. We have to make sure that we have that opportunity available for fans in Japan, and we’re already doing that. There’s a Japanese area on our website and there’s going to be on our network. We are making every possible opportunity available for fans in Japan to follow the Washington Wizards and certainly to get up close behind the scenes with Rui.”
In other words, building lasting relationships with fans in Hachimura’s homeland is a real priority for the team under its new GM, whose experiences as a safety for the New Mexico State football team in the late 1980s and early ’90s helped prepare him for his current challenge.
Sheppard cited teamwork, dedication, personal sacrifice, being selfless and “trying to help a bigger group objective over yourself at all times” as important learning tools.
“Those lessons that I learned as a player certainly they translate to management,” he said. “That’s something we look for in everybody: the ability to be humble, to be part of something and not be the thing, and that’s what we’re looking for. We want hard-working, high-character players that’ll leave it all out on the floor.”