It did not take Wes Unseld Jr. long to get in touch with Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal.
The Washington Wizards’ newest head coach and the franchise’s backcourt stars all appear to be on the same page with what the team needs to do to take a step forward.
“I felt like I was talking to the same person, and I say that because the message was clear: They want to be coached, they are looking for the accountability,” Unseld Jr. said on Monday. “… I think they both know offense is not the issue right now [for the Wizards]. There is buy-in right now. We’ll see as we get into training camp and the preseason, there has to be carryover. [But] there is an alignment there in thought. We are all on the same page as to what is going to be required of them. The best part about that is both of them, as leaders of this team, are committed to being better on that end.”
The Wizards proudly introduced Unseld Jr. as their new head coach on Monday, bringing the franchise back under the Unseld name. Wes Unseld was one of organization’s greatest player who led the Bullets to their only championship in 1977-78 and was the team’s former head coach and vice president.
Unseld Jr. started his career with the Wizards as an advance/pro scout in 1997 and was an assistant coach for the Wizards for six seasons. He returns to the District after being an assistant coach in Denver for the past six seasons, overseeing the defense and helping with the development of MVP Nikola Jokic.
“The one thing that has always stood out with Wes is his intelligence about the game, where the game is headed, the modern NBA, and certainly his proficiency on the defensive side of the ball, which is an area which we absolutely must address immediately,” Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard said. “I think that is something he will deliver on.”
Sheppard added that Unseld Jr.’s relationships with players over the years impressed the Wizards.
“He worked with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson when they were young,” Sheppard said. “With [Nikola] Vucevic, Tobias Harris and [Victor] Oladipo in Orlando, and you look at the MVP season that Jokic had and Jokic was begging him not to leave Denver. Jamal Murray, all the different players that he touched there … when players call you to tell you that you should hire this guy unsolicited, that is pretty impressive to me.”
In addition to celebrating the Unseld heritage with Washington, defense was the clear theme of the coach’s introductory news conference. The Wizards allowed the most points in the NBA at 118.5 per game this past season.
So even though the Wizards overcame a COVID-19 outbreak, numerous season-ending injuries and a 17-32 start to make the playoffs, Unseld Jr. replaces Scott Brooks with an eye on improving defense and preparation.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said he watched film with Unseld Jr. during the hiring process and was impressed with his eye for detail. Leonsis said Wizards players in exit interviews talked about improving on “the little things; they talked about defensive intensity, they talked about communication.”
“You’ve seen that a lot of assistant coaches are taking the next step, especially this summer,” Leonsis said. “I think there is a reason for that … Sometimes when you are a second- or third-time head coach, I don’t think you work as hard. I think you rely on your assistant coaches. What I found with the interviews and especially in talking with Wes, how they do the game-planning, they know the players, they know the tendencies, and they have to work really hard to prepare for each and every game.
“I looked at our team and there were times when I thought we lost games that we shouldn’t have. Yes, defensively, but I think having a work ethic and a demanding style will be a very good point of differentiation for us.”
Westbrook and Beal will be playing their second season together, but it might feel more like their first full season given the issues the team faced in a condensed 72-game schedule. The duo hopes to have a healthy Thomas Bryant back along with developing young players in Rui Hachimura, Daniel Gafford and Deni Avdija.
And the man in charge of bringing them together to play better defense and win is someone who will be following in the giant footsteps of his father.
“Put in a lot of hours to get myself in this position,” Unseld Jr. said. “I know my dad is up there smiling down. He is probably chuckling, [cracking] ‘Moron, I told you not to do this [coaching].’ So I know he is extremely proud.”
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