Headlined by Westbrook and Gafford, Tommy Sheppard has Wizards on right track

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Tommy Sheppard has Wizards on right track originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Back in the spring of 2019, when he set out to search for a new general manager of the Washington Wizards, chairman Ted Leonsis enlisted a man named Mike Forde, who has become a prominent voice in the hiring processes for many teams. He's a former English Premier League executive who now runs a consulting company called Sportsology.

Six weeks ago, Forde did an interview with the The Ringer where he said something that can be applied directly to the Wizards.

“When I work with owners I always tell them that it will take two to three years to know if they made the right decision," Forde told Yaron Weitzman.

The Wizards right now are towards the end of their second season under the leadership of general manager Tommy Sheppard, through two offseasons with him in charge and with 22 months having passed since he was officially hired.

Going by Forde's timeline, the returns are looking more and more promising. In fact, if you look closely, the Wizards are arguably very much on the right track in a variety of important areas.

That has been one of the more interesting parts of this 2020-21 Wizards season, which has featured more ups and downs than a lie detector test. While their performance in the standings has fluctuated dramatically, their overall trajectory has suggested steady progress in the big picture.

Through the development of young players and in the acquisitions of veterans at the margins, Sheppard and his staff have been collecting more roster-building victories than losses and anyone paying close attention can see it. 

The headliner move, of course, was the Russell Westbrook trade, which at least anecdotally, was an unpopular move among many fans. There was a loud outcry on social media, as many came to grips with the emotions of seeing John Wall go. He was one of the best players in franchise history and a beloved figure with an impact on the community that was second to none.

Sheppard, though, set his emotions aside to execute that trade, as any good GM would. Wall, as he told NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller, felt spurned by the lack of communication through the process. But doing what's best for the organization, no matter whose feelings it may hurt, is part of the job. Sheppard himself said it was one of the toughest situations he's had to navigate in his career as an executive.

Look at the trade now. Westbrook is averaging a triple-double and career-highs in multiple categories, all without a detailed injury history to present worry around the corner. The Wizards traded a very good player, but one with health concerns, and a heavily protected first-round pick, for an all-time great still in his prime. It took time, but now it's leading to wins and a level of excitement and interest surrounding the Wizards not seen in years.

Beyond the calculated element of acquiring Westbrook, perhaps the most important sign was the risk the Wizards took in making such a trade. It was the biggest trade the franchise had made in many years and something that in some ways brought them up to speed for the modern NBA. This era is defined by star movement, of big names changing places. And that is how most contenders are built nowadays.

Another move with significance and recency would be the trade for Daniel Gafford. That one was also met with scorn from some fans who lamented the fact Washington gave up on former first-round pick Troy Brown Jr. at just 21 years old. But very quickly Gafford has proven to be an absolute diamond of a find. He's a 22-year-old big man with elite athleticism, plus the intangibles to match. He has coordination, he's smart, he's mature and he hustles from baseline to baseline. That last trait puts him in line with many of the players Sheppard has brought in.

Like other players before, Sheppard had his eyes on Gafford for years. The Wizards had him ranked 23rd on their draft board in 2019, NBC Sports Washington was told. That was 15 spots higher than he was picked by the Chicago Bulls in the second round. They weren't selecting in his range, so they waited and then finally got him. It was worth the wait.

That trade already looks like a victory for the Wizards, if not a fleecing of the Bulls, who aren't run by dummies by any stretch. Their front office, installed with executives who previously worked for the Nuggets, have already made some impressive moves, namely drafting Patrick Williams fourth overall last fall.

Perhaps the most encouraging move the Wizards' current front office has made was the drafting of Rui Hachimura ninth overall in 2019. The pick was called a reach by many draft evaluators because of Hachimura's age and supposed lack of upside. Yet, he became an immediate contributor, the first Wizards' player to make the NBA's All-Rookie team since Bradley Beal in 2013, and he has flashed more potential on defense than many would have expected based on pre-draft analysis.

They banked on Hachimura's inexperience relative to other players going back to his youth, how he didn't play the sport until he was a teenager in Japan. That made his age in their eyes nothing but a number, and so far that has proven to be a smart strategy.

The Wizards appear to have seen something in Hachimura other teams didn't, and if you look at the way the 2019 draft played out, there was no one in direct range that has been a markedly better player. They surveyed the options and made the best choice for them. That bodes well for the future, as they may need to continue hitting on draft picks that aren't slam dunks in the top-5.

Really, though, it's about the quantity of moves the Wizards front office has made that should give fans hope. The list is growing and when you're building a team over time, it is essential to consistently keep stacking chips.

The Westbrook and Gafford trades were wins and so was picking Hachimura. Add to the list the trade for Davis Bertans, for whom they essentially gave up nothing. The free-agent signings of veterans like Raul Neto, Ish Smith and Robin Lopez have all worked out tremendously. They found Alex Len off the trash heap midseason and he has helped transform their defense with his rim protection, and helped them pass his former team - the Raptors - in the process.

Sheppard also re-signed Beal to an extension in October of 2019 when few saw it coming. He also signed Garrison Mathews as an undrafted free agent, a guy who shoots 39.1% from three through 75 career games, 22 of them starts.

Time will tell about the Deni Avdija selection in the 2020 NBA Draft. His rookie year was rocky and ended with an injury. There were players picked behind him that are off to better starts. But Avdija's selection was entirely about the long-term. He was a project of sorts with sky-high upside because of his size, athleticism and skillset -- a combination that could produce a rare talent if developed correctly. Check back on him in a few years.

Add it all up and the Wizards are clearly trending upward. Whether it's fast enough to catch up with the competitive timeline of Beal and Westbrook has yet to be determined. That element will make for a pivotal offseason and one that could require some big thinking.

But if you're trying to gauge the direction of the team, now nearly two years into this operation, it's obvious to anyone combing through the details that the positive trajectory is there.