You can’t spell international without intentional, but the way the Washington Wizards see it, their United Nations roster has nothing to do with any grand design.
It is, instead, just a happy by-product of a sport and a league that have stamped an imprint around the globe.
Washington has spent much of 2020-21 near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, but leads the league in two categories: committing fouls and, with seven, the number of foreign-born players on its roster. It’s unlikely those two categories are related, but you can bet the Wizards’ basketball operations peeps are more focused on the former than the latter.
It’s basketball. Without borders, y’know?
“If these guys can play, I don’t care where they’re from,” general manager Tommy Sheppard told NBA.com last week. “I never check passports. If you can play, you can stay.”
The Wizards team that will try to extend its winning streak to five Monday night against the Lakers at Staples Center (NBA TV, 10 p.m. ET) has seven players from six different countries. They are: Rui Hachimura (Japan), Deni Avdija (Israel), Raul Neto (Brazil), Alex Len (Ukraine), Davis Bertans (Latvia) and Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga (both from Germany). Center Anzejs Pasecniks, also of Latvia, was waived in January, but the roll call bumped back to seven when Len was signed six days later.
“I don’t look at it as ‘this guy’s from Israel, this guy’s from Japan, this guy’s from Germany,’” coach Scott Brooks said. “We all speak the same language and we all want the same thing. That’s basketball. Even the terminology now, everyone’s talking the same.”
The math of all this isn’t surprising. As of opening night in December, there were 107 international players from 41 countries on NBA rosters. There were another 10 on two-way contracts to split time between the NBA and the G League. Heck, as long as we’re counting, there were six such players among the 15 who were honored on an All-NBA first, second or third team last season.
This is the seventh consecutive season begun with at least 100 foreign-born players — nearly 25 percent of the playing workforce — and all 30 teams had at least one representative, according to league data. So if there were an even distribution, each team would have 3.56 international guys.
That the Wizards have doubled that number, though, isn’t entirely happenstance. Credit Sheppard and his long-established interest in and familiarity with basketball in foreign lands. While Dallas president of basketball operations Donn Nelson is widely considered one of the early cultivators of overseas talent among active executives, the Wizards’ GM wasn’t far behind.
Washington has had some notable foreign players in its past — Manute Bol (Sudan), Gheorghe Muresan (Romania), Andrew Gaze (Australia) — but Sheppard’s arrival in 2003 brought a spark that has taken the global focus to another level.
“We try to find talent anywhere we can,” Sheppard said. “I do believe there’s so much talent around the world you can tap into.”
Sheppard’s international connections date back as far as 1996, when he worked with the Denver Nuggets in player relations. He was assisting with the Summer Olympics that year when veteran Euro player Sarunas Marciulionis was traded to the Nuggets, and the two struck up a friendship right there in Atlanta.
Over time, they became business partners, founding the North European Basketball League that ran from 1998 through 2003. Sheppard worked three Olympics for the USOC. He picked longtime NBA coach Mike D’Antoni’s brain in their time together in Denver — D’Antoni was a legend as an American playing and coaching in Italy in the 1980s and 90s.
And the Wizards GM routinely accompanied his teams’ international players — Marcin Gortat, Nene — when they competed in global events. That introduced him to more prospects, like current Washington players Bertans and Neto.
“I’ve always taken great inspiration from what the Spurs did forever,” Sheppard said, citing the franchise famous for Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Tony Parker (France) and even Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands) as successful overseas stars.
“They were the gold standard. It’s not like they said, ‘Let’s go get international guys.’ It kind of organically grew that way. You take a lot of notes over the years and you see what works in different places.”
Sheppard estimates he has worked with 25-30 international players in his career.
“Each one has a different story, but you learn from every one,” he said.
He has found many to be well-equipped to handle the challenges and uncertainties of NBA life, from losing streaks to the current COVID shutdown and postponements.
“I think it’s [having] a global perspective,” the Wizards exec said. “Life in the NBA sometimes is, ‘The Lamborghini had a flat tire today,’ that’s a crisis in our world. That’s not the world’s perspective. There are ways when you’re from other countries and you scratch and claw to get to the NBA on a journey that’s a little different that help you.”
When Sheppard took over as GM two summers ago, he and owner Ted Leonsis created a pro personnel department that was overdue within the organization. They beefed up staffing, looking now to Johnny Rogers to head up that area — Rogers was a second-round pick by Sacramento in 1986 out of Stanford who spent most of his 18-year playing career in Europe.
The scouting department includes Marco Baldi in Treviso, Italy; Jon Pastuszek in France, and Francesco Cavalli in Milan.
“Getting real-time information from around the world lets you make the most informed decisions you can make,” said Sheppard, who soon plans to hire an international assistant coach.
Hachimura, of course, was seen by everyone domestically in his three seasons at Gonzaga. Others such as Wagner and Len also played in the NCAA. As for Avdija, Sheppard said, he dropped into their laps as the No. 9 pick in the 2020 Draft, with the Wizards claiming to have him as the fourth-best prospect on their board.
Those two most recent lottery picks weren’t important only to Washington’s basketball operation. They turned on the lights of international opportunity for the franchise’s business folks.
“After we drafted Rui, we had over 100 Japanese media members who attended his first press conference in D.C.,” said Jim Van Stone, president of business operations and chief commercial officer for Monumental Sports, the Wizards’ parent company.
“Right then and there, it said to us, as we move forward with international players, we need to create international-language content platforms around those players.”
Done. The Wizards’ Web site is accessible in English, Japanese and Hebrew now. The team has Twitter and Instagram accounts in all three languages, too. They have hired staff to handle the additional work, well worth it given the business relationships with sponsors and partners in Japan, India, China and the Middle East.
“We really want to make the fans in Japan feel like the Washington Wizards are their hometown team,” said Van Stone, who has made three trips to Japan since Hachimura came aboard. “Make them feel really close to their favorite NBA players even if they’re a 14-hour flight away.” And he said the passion for Avdija, despite Israel’s smaller population, has been just as avid.
The players are aware of their far-reaching appeal and fan base.
Said Bertans: “Japan has a huge population and Rui is like the Michael Jordan of Japan. Everybody knows him, everybody follows him. The same with Deni — Israel is a huge basketball country and they love the game.”
The significance isn’t lost on Wizards players either. Some of them have felt like pioneers. But they expect more hitting the NBA shores.
“For the game to grow in any country, all it takes is one player,” said Bertans, the 6-foot-10 “stretch four” forward. “That’s the reason why we have more and more NBA players from different countries, not just the ones everybody got used to. Now we see countries where the population is ridiculously small, and they have an NBA player.”
Like Latvia. Bertans recited the history of the NBA in his native land. First there was Gundars Vetra, a guard who played 13 games for Minnesota in the early 90s. Then it was forward Andris Biedrins whose career ran from 2004 to 2014. “Now we have three or four players playing at the same time in the NBA, which is ridiculous for our small country,” he said.
That currently includes Bertans, Dallas’ Kristaps Porzingis and Houston forward Rodions Kurucs.
Where the rubber meets the hardwood, on the court in competition in the best basketball league in the world, the Wizards claim no cultural or communication issues. Same with the locker room.
Style of play is less of an issue than ever, for example. It used to be, international players were considered “soft” when thrown into the rigors of more physical NBA play of three or four decades ago. Remember how Toni Kukoc was dubbed “Bambi” by some disparaging Chicago teammates? Dirk Nowitzki had critics wondering how well he would fare while getting bumped and bruised in ways that didn’t typically happen overseas.
But the NBA itself is a lot less physical now, with 3-point mania and the abolition of hand-checking on defense opening the door to a more finesse game.
Also, NBA style has been embraced in so many other global markets.
“The only thing I’ve noticed, I’d say over the past 15 years, is that [international influence] used to be great passing, great movement, everything like that,” Brooks said. “Used to be spot-up shooters, cutters, ball movers. But now you’re seeing more 1-on-1 guys, ball handling, guys who are controlling the ball and making moves. Now it really is a worldly game.”
Several Wizards said they have no issues in language skills or cultural tastes in their multi-national locker room.
“It’s actually very fun, having a lot of people from different countries,” Hachimura said. “And for me, it’s more comfortable for me to play with these guys — international. Just to be around. I feel like it’s just a different flavor.”
Then Hachimura wrapped up his Zoom media availability for English questions, and began a session in Japanese.
Winning over American teammates used to be a process for foreign-born players, based on unfamiliarity. Not so much anymore. Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and others seem almost as pleased with the roster makeup as the Wizards’ marketing department.
“We’re all basketball players from different walks of life,” Len said. “We’ve got the same goal when we get on the court — play together — and then we’ve got good leadership, Russ, Bradley and Scott Brooks leading the way. Off the court, you don’t even realize guys are from different countries. You just play basketball.”
Said Brooks: “When I was a player, I saw that it took a while for new guys to gain the trust and respect of teammates. But now with social media, there are so many guys who have platforms and been exposed to it all, they look at it as, ‘This is what we do now.’ So that’s really changed.
“But it works both ways. Whether you’re from California or Latvia, if you can’t play, you’re not going to blend in.”
Sheppard and Van Stone talked of the appeal of the District of Columbia for international players, with embassies from around the world and pockets of residents who come from the same places as those Wizards.
There’s a comfort factor in play in the other direction too, or will be over time.
“I can’t wait for the pandemic to get over with,” Brooks said, “because I’ve got seven places in the world I can go visit and know the good restaurants and places to stay.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.