Washington Wizards: What can fans expect from Wes Unseld Jr?

Washington Wizards Wes Unseld Jr. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Washington Wizards Wes Unseld Jr. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

In typical Washington Wizards fashion — holding the lone NBA coaching vacancy after a month of “due diligence” — the organization finally landed on Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr. to be the 25th head coach in franchise history. Unseld, the son of an icon here in D.C., comes with high regard around league circles. So what can Wizards fans expect out of the first-time head coach?

Wes Unseld Jr. will be an excellent communicator for the Washington Wizards

“Everything starts with being a great communicator.” That’s what Tommy Sheppard said last month in terms of the coaching search, and from all accounts that describes Wes Unseld Jr.

"“Wes does a hell of a job communicating and relating to our players.” – Michael Malone, in 2019“I love him [Unseld]. I talk to him a lot, even outside of basketball. I love him as a person, as a coach. Me and him have kind of a similar mindset. We don’t need to say that much. … I really love the communication, the relationship that we have. It’s fun. We are helping each other.” – Nikola Jokic, in 2020"

Unseld’s communication style was well-received in Denver and should help establish a new culture in Washington. Since firing Ernie Grunfeld at the end of 2018-19, the Wizards have been all about establishing a culture. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to do that when your head coach doesn’t reach the guys in the locker room. Despite the improvements this past season, Brooks never obtained buy-in on the defensive end of the floor.

"“I think tonight was just a matter of effort. We didn’t come in with effort. We thought it was gonna be an easy game, and they whooped our ass.” – Bradley Beal, in 2018 (after losing to the 6-23 Hawks)"

Another hallmark of the Brooks era: marginalization across the roster. When players are confused or uncertain about their role, it only leads to worse performance on the floor. (Which in turn leads to less playing time — or even worse, the doghouse). This never-ending cycle was a recurring theme of the last five years.

"“I don’t mean specific things. I just mean, all three years — at the end, I did get a chance to play, but it was always depending on someone’s injury… But I just mean in terms of, I’d already thought I did enough, but it wasn’t enough. I always had to do something better.” – Tomas Satoransky in 2019“I feel like the first day I got here, I talked to coach Donovan and he told me, ‘Hey, I need defense right now.’ So for him to tell me that and actually act on it and giving me a role to play defense, it definitely gives me an opportunity. And that’s all I ask for.” – Troy Brown Jr. in 2021"

Communication is always a two-way street — both sides must give and receive feedback. Denver’s coaching staff (with Unseld as the de-facto “defensive coordinator”) implemented aggressive pick-and-roll coverages, in large part because Jokic has told them that he’s uncomfortable playing drop, as counterintuitive as that may seem. While Unseld may be soft-spoken, it’s clear that sharing a rapport with the players through an open line of communication is one of his strengths. And it leads to results.

Wes Unseld Jr. will be a problem solver for the Washington Wizards

From the Wizards of Aughts (lots of the Princeton offense) to Jacque Vaughn’s Magic (Spurs motion-heavy) to Denver, Wes Unseld has a wide range of experiences that he can draw from. He’s going to tailor the system to Wizards’ personnel rather than sticking to his ways and forcing a system onto whatever pieces he has. It’s not going to be easy, at least with this group. Luckily Unseld is up for the challenge.

"“We’re always well-prepared. And Wes is a tireless worker.” – Michael Malone, also in 2019“And he’s [Unseld] a grinder. I mean, anybody who spent eight years as an advanced scout, that’s really hard. So you’re always certain that when he speaks there’s knowledge behind it.” – Tim Connelly in 2020."

The Nuggets in the playoffs have made a habit of beating the odds, and you have to think that Wes Unseld Jr. has played a role in that. These quotes aren’t just the Denver brass hyping up their own, either. Watch as Unseld calls out the San Antonio set and (appears to) wave Jamal Murray off to stick with Bryn Forbes to avoid the switch onto DeMar DeRozan. Jokic and Murray — two players with limited physical tools — have both made strides forward on that end.

To sum it up, Wes Unseld Jr. is an outstanding communicator, a relentless worker, and someone who has worked in many different situations and has a fine understanding of the modern game. Sounds like a pretty good choice, if you ask me. Especially for a franchise that will need to face the music at some point and undergo a transitionary phase (i.e. a rebuild).

Of course, you can never be certain with first-time NBA head coaches. For every Erik Spoelstra, there’s a Jim Boylen; for every Steve Kerr, a Derek Fisher. At the very least, I’m looking forward to seeing Bradley Beal suit up a competent one for the first time in his career. Now let’s see how the rest of the off-season shapes out…

Next. Wes Unseld Jr hire is about more than nostalgia. dark