Montrezl Harrell sprung up right off the ground and started to vigorously pound his chest in celebration. The Washington Wizards center had just made a key defensive stop in Monday’s 105-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans — taking a charge from Jonas Valanciunas.
Harrell had no hesitation taking on the full force of a man four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier.
“I’m a passionate player,” Harrell said. “That’s the only way I know how to play.”
Yes, these days, the Wizards — off to their best start in 47 years at 10-3 — really are winning games due to the strength of their defense.
Valanciunas’ foul, for instance, was part of a six-minute stretch in the fourth in which the Pelicans failed to score a bucket — a defensive stand from the Wizards that allowed them to seize the lead. Washington had trailed by as many as 19 in the second half.
Monday’s game marked the sixth time in 13 games the Wizards held an opponent to 100 points or fewer — significant because Washington only had five such outings last season.
Perhaps just as startling, the Wizards improved to 3-0 without star Bradley Beal, who missed his second straight game after the death of his grandmother. The Wizards were 2-10 in Beal’s absence last season.
The improved record and defense speak to the depth the Wizards have this year. But just as responsible for Washington’s strong start is Wes Unseld Jr. — the first-year coach who has crafted Washington’s successful defensive schemes and been able to adapt to players coming in and out of the lineup.
“I’ve noticed that he brings the best from everybody,” forward Deni Avdija said of Unseld. “That’s only what great, great coaches have. And if brings the best from everybody, we can do great things. Nobody expected us to do great things, right? But we just want to keep it going.”
Avdija is a good example of how players have blossomed under Unseld. The 20-year-old has emerged as one of the Wizards’ top defenders — and Unseld has trusted Avdija late to guard stars like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram in the fourth quarter. “For a basketball player to get trusted, it’s the best feeling in the world,” Avdija says.
Of course, Avdija deserves credit for his growth as a defender. As a rookie last season, Avdija occasionally looked lost on the defensive end and struggled to defend without fouling. The Israeli-born forward has put a lot of time into improving, telling reporters he’s watched more hours of film these past few months than Netflix.
But Unseld and his staff have helped nurture Avdija’s development. They work closely together, with assistants prepping clips to show Avdija. That, obviously, is part of coaching and happens all the time in the NBA, but Avdija said Unseld “knows how to get the best (out) of us.”
When Washington was down at halftime Monday, players noticed Unseld’s composure. Washington had not played well at all against one of the league’s worst teams, though Unseld didn’t yell or tear into his group, they said. Rather, he showed them five to seven clips from the first half and told them where they could be better.
“Coach Unseld does a perfect job in staying the course,” said guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
The Wizards are defending in a way they rarely did under former coach Scott Brooks. In five seasons, Brooks’ teams regularly ranked near the bottom of the league and the team’s highest finish defensively was 15th.
This year, the Wizards rank fourth in defensive rating — holding teams to 102.7 points per 100 possessions.
Even after Monday’s win, Unseld stressed how his team can’t let this year’s strong start get to their heads. He said the Wizards have to “keep growing and keep building” in order to maintain its early success.
Still, only one group in franchise history has started better: the 1974-75 Bullets — a team that won the championship. That roster featured Unseld’s father, Wes Unseld.
Unseld Jr., born in September 1975, laughed and shrugged when asked for his reaction to the milestone.
“Records are made to be broken,” he smiled. “I don’t know. It’s a good thing, honestly. It’s exciting. It’s a testament to this group. But we still have a lot of games to play. … We want to stay the course and continue to put in the time, put in the work.”