Wes Unseld Jr. was ready to take a break. In 1997, he had just graduated from Johns Hopkins and the former college basketball player planned to take a year off, go to grad school and move on from the sport that he had been around his entire life.
But when his father — Wes Sr., the Hall of Famer who was then the Washington Wizards’ general manager — came calling with a job offer to be a scout, the basketball break went out the window.
“He then worked me like a dog,” Unseld said Monday. “But it paid off.”
Unseld may have gotten in the door of the NBA because of his father, but as he sat inside Capital One Arena as the Wizards’ newest coach, the team’s brass made clear his hiring wasn’t about nostalgia or his name. Unseld, after all, has spent the last 16 years as an NBA assistant with four teams — most recently with the Denver Nuggets. He’s paid his dues and earned his shot.
Unseld’s return to Washington is a homecoming of sorts, given that he started his coaching career 16 years ago on the Wizards’ bench behind then-coach Eddie Jordan in 2005. In that time he’s built a reputation as a defensive stalwart — a coach credited with helping the Nuggets transform from the second-worst unit in the league to a top 10 unit within two years.
At his opening press conference Monday, Unseld said he’s excited to lead the Wizards — adding he’s also found “his own voice,” an approach to the game that differs from that of his late father.
“We both shared that deep-rooted passion,” Unseld said. “He was coming from a different place as a player. Obviously an MVP, a champion. My experience to this point has been different.”
For one, Unseld doesn’t have the in-the-trenches pedigree of his father. Unseld Sr. was named one of the NBA’s top 50 players in 1996. Unseld said he compensates by being more obsessed with preparation.
As Unseld spoke, his mother Connie and other members of his family sat in the front row. They were, of course, without Wes Sr. — he died in June 2020 due to complications from pneumonia.
Unseld said he knew his dad was “up there, smiling down.”
The 49-year-old fit the profile of what the Wizards were looking for after they parted ways with coach Scott Brooks last month. General manager Tommy Sheppard said the team interviewed more than 20 candidates and wanted someone with a modern approach who could also fix the Wizards’ defense. Most of the candidates appeared to be assistants around the league who would be hungry for a promotion.
That wasn’t a coincidence, owner Ted Leonsis said.
“This is a very, very demanding job, and sometimes when you’re a head coach for a second or third time, I don’t think you work as hard,” Leonsis said. “I think you rely on your assistant coaches. … I looked at our team and I think there were times I thought we lost games where we shouldn’t have. Yes defensively, but I think just having a work ethic and a demanding style will be a really, really good point of differentiation for us.
“The players all in the exit interviews, in what we talked about them with what we were lacking and how we can improve, they talked about the little things. They talked about defensive intensity.”
With the Nuggets, Unseld was tasked as the team’s de facto defensive coordinator. Coach Michael Malone gave Unseld a strong endorsement — telling reporters after the season that the “results speak for themselves” regarding Denver’s defensive improvement. The Nuggets, too, made strides defensively without players not known for their defensive prowess.
As the Wizards conducted their search, Sheppard said he received calls from Nuggets players, coaches and executives, urging him to hire Unseld.
“For where our team is and where we’re headed to, Wes is the perfect leader for that team,” Sheppard said.
Unseld inherits a Wizards team stuck in the middle. Washington has stars in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook and promising young pieces in Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Daniel Gafford. But Washington arguably underperformed last year — even when hit hard by the pandemic — and there is significant work to be done to a team that ranked 20th in defense last year, barely making the playoffs as the eighth seed (34-38).
Discussing the roster, Unseld said he’s already spoken with Beal and Westbrook. He said he felt like he was talking to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray — Denver’s two stars — because Beal and Westbrook showed a willingness to be coached. They both knew that offense “is not the issue right now,” Unseld said.
Unseld said he understands there will be moments next season when the situation won’t unfold as planned. There will be tough stretches, he said. That’s just the nature of the NBA. But if it does go off track, he’ll be prepared to fix it.
“The most important thing is you have to be authentic,” Unseld said. “I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not.”