How the Wizards became one of the most international teams in the NBA

Chase Hughes
·7 min read

How the Wizards became one of the NBA's most international teams originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

To experience many cultures in one place while in Washington, D.C., you could take a drive down Embassy Row. Or, you could walk into the Wizards' locker room.

That's because the Wizards have compiled a uniquely diverse roster with players from all over the world. They currently have seven international players, which if it holds on opening night, would match the Mavericks' league-leading total from last season.

The Wizards feature players from Japan (Rui Hachimura), Israel (Deni Avdija), Latvia (Dāvis Bertāns and Anžejs Pasečņiks), Brazil (Raul Neto) and Germany (Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga). They also have Anthony Gill, who came over after playing in the EuroLeague.

While international players have become more prevalent in today's NBA, this is a far cry from the not-so-distant past. The Wizards had five international players on opening night of 2019 and six total last season. But as recently as 2005-06, the Wizards roster featured zero players born outside of the United States.

Go further back and you see fewer and fewer international players. The franchise had zero from 1961 to 1985 until Manute Bol joined them from the country of Sudan.

Bol was their only international player until the 1993-94 season when they added Gheorghe Muresan (Romania), Tito Horford (Dominican Republic) and Andrew Gaze (Australia). There were only 24 international players in the NBA at the time (compared to 108 in 2019-20) and the Bullets had four of them.

So, technically this isn't the first global wave the franchise has seen. But this year it could be taken to a new degree, as seven international players would be a franchise record.

"Those seven guys have the attributes we look for, not the passports we look for. It doesn't really matter to me where you're from," general manager Tommy Sheppard told NBC Sports Washington. "If there's talent all over the world, it's your job to go find it. It's never intentional."

It is, however, no accident that Sheppard has overseen this. He has long been a frequent traveler, scouting players overseas for the teams he's worked for. He also spent time with USA Basketball, spanning three Olympics.

Sheppard says he's scouted players on every continent save for Antarctica.

"I'll go anywhere in the world where there's basketball. It doesn't bother me at all," Sheppard said.

Last summer, when he took over as GM, he and team chairman Ted Leonsis set a plan to increase their emphasis on international scouting. They expanded scouting resources around the globe, aiming to keep up as the game continues to broaden its reach.

Sheppard's experience in that realm goes way back. He remembers being with the Denver Nuggets when they traded for Šarūnas Marčiulionis, a Hall of Famer from Lithuania. The two would build a strong friendship and later team up to start the Northern European Basketball League, which peaked at 32 teams across 16 countries and planted seeds in the basketball world still seen today. Nick Nurse, now with the Toronto Raptors, was a coach for the London Towers.

Back then, Marčiulionis was one of just a handful of international players in the NBA and at the time it was a difficult transition for many. Sheppard recalls Marčiulionis going to the grocery store early in his NBA career and filling the cart up entirely with meat.

"He came back to the store every day for a week because he thought there was no way there would be meat here tomorrow," Sheppard said. "He was a product of the Soviet Union, so he didn't believe everything."

Scanning the globe for so many years has left Sheppard with a deep catalog of origin stories. Ask him about any Wizards player and he can tell you the first time he saw them play.

On Neto: "I traveled with Brazil in 2014. I was traveling with Nenê, he was on their national team and they were in the world championships. They were in the first round in Grenada and Nenê's team, it was actually one of the best showings Brazil ever had in the world championships. The finals were in Madrid. I'll never forget it. And in 2014, I was never thinking about signing Raulzinho, but he was on that team...

"They're playing Argentina in a crossover game, a humongous game. Two countries that absolutely are rivals. In that game, Raul was 9-for-11 with 24 points in 20 minutes. He helped them beat Argentina, it was one of the biggest wins in Brazil basketball history. I'll never forget that. I'll never forget that performance by that kid and I always looked for ways to get him moving forward."

On Bertāns: "The first time I saw Dāvis, he was playing for his junior team in Lithuania at the European championships. That was an amazing [tournament]. You had Jonas Valanciunas as a center, Rudy Gobert as a center, Alex Len was a center. All these guys, they had some great bigs. Latvia had the Bertāns brothers. Dāvis was at that age he was just a wonderful shooter. Eventually, you thought he would be one of the better shooters in the world. So many of these guys, I saw them when they were very young, so you have a good baseline on them moving forward."

On Avdija: "It was at an international tournament. I just remember his basketball IQ was really high and we were aware of his father [Zufer Avdija]. There was a bloodline. Anytime you get to a tournament and get there early, and I like to get there very early, you get the program and start flipping through. The first thing you do is look for familiar names and see if anybody in there, if their name registers it rings a bell. You wonder 'I wonder if this is that guy's kid.' ... That name had some twitch to it. I did a little research and right away that's somebody that goes on your radar."

How all the international players will end up affecting the Wizards' style of play remains to be seen. The game has expanded globally to the point where there has been a decades-long melting pot effect. The days of Arvydas Sabonis revolutionizing passing at the big man position, or the advent of the Euro Step, which Marčiulionis is widely credited for, are in the past.

"The game of basketball is an international language," head coach Scott Brooks said. "We all speak the same language on the court and I love that."

The NBA game is faster and there are naturally more dynamic athletes, as it is the best league in the world. But the contrast between the players will be more evident off the court than on it.

"We have a lot of different guys from a lot of different cultures, different countries," Russell Westbrook said. "I was telling my wife last night how I'm grateful for that because it gives me an opportunity to learn a bit about different cultures... understanding their struggle and understanding why they play the game. A lot of people play for different reasons."

"I think it's a good thing, having all these different people from all these different places here," Bonga said. "I think we're going to have really, really good chemistry."

Sheppard has noticed over the years how many international players love playing in Washington, D.C. The diversity of the city helps each of them find something familiar.

"You're in the most powerful city in the world and you've got all the embassies. It really does feel like for an international player, when they come here everybody finds a little place where they can feel like home," Sheppard said. "We've had many international players come through here and say this was their favorite NBA stop."

In the Wizards' locker room, you may hear many different languages these days. But on the court, it's just hoops.

"It doesn't matter where anybody's from, as long as you play ball. That's what we do," Bradley Beal said.