For years, Wes Unseld Jr.–a DMV native, son of Washington basketball legend Wes Unseld Sr., and former Nuggets assistant coach–has been known as a top candidate for a head coaching job with a knack for getting the best out of players and stepping up lackluster defenses.
So it was a happy twist of fate that the Washington Wizards announced in July that Unseld’s first NBA head-coaching job would be in DC, overseeing the team as they try to bounce back from last year’s early playoff exit. Unseld spoke with us about his relationship with the DMV, his approach to coaching, and his big plans to right the ship coming into this season.
What does it mean for you to take the reins of your father’s former team?
It means a lot that I’m returning to coach in the region where I grew up, so it is a feel-good story, but this is not about me. The culture has to be “we,” not “me.”
You’ve gained a reputation as a workhorse. What’s behind that?
There’s always that stigma that legacy hands over to you. It gives you the mindset of I’m going to prove you wrong, those that don’t think you belong. It drives you.
What other DC jerseys would we find in your closet?
This won’t be popular, but coming from Maryland, I have an affinity for the Ravens.
How would you characterize DC as a sports town today?
Look at the success of the Washington Football Team, which we aspire to, the success of the Caps, and the success of the Washington Bullets that we want to get back to. Fans want a winning club, and they’re craving that identity.
How would you define success for the Wizards?
If our approach is right, it allows for sustainable success and multiple playoff appearances.
You’re known as something of a player whisperer. In an era when keeping NBA players happy is arguably more difficult and critical than ever, how do you manage to connect with them?
It happens organically. I’ve made this point throughout the job interview process and when I’ve had the opportunity to speak to the players. They’re not going to all of a sudden trust me. You have to take the time to get to know them on and off the floor. That way you’ll find common ground, what motivates them, and what drives them. You’ll find triggers where you can push them a little harder than someone else. And at some point there are going to be some stressful moments. And at those times, walls come up; it’s natural and inevitable. During those moments, if both parties know where each other are coming from, it can help ease the angst.
The Wizards’ success may hinge on Bradley Beal. How have your meetings with him gone?
He was very gracious. I told him I think this is going to be a great opportunity for him. He’s got a lot of ability—one of the greatest scorers in the NBA. The next step for him is the leadership capacity. He’s a lead-by-example guy. The challenge now is to use his voice.
The team is in a transitional period after trading away star Russell Westbrook to the Lakers. How has that affected your approach?
You have to take a step back and look at who you have when you’re planning and developing a philosophy. Obviously, that’s now completely changed. But the overall concepts stay the same. We need to play with pace when we have the opportunity, and we need to increase efficiency. But this team has not had an issue with scoring, so I’m not going to come in and change everything. I’m a big believer that your best players are going to show you how to coach.
As a new coach, what’s the biggest change you want to make?
The focus and effort. And a big part of that is getting buy in. That’s not an indictment of the staff here: Some of it was just a byproduct of the compressed season. Some young guys didn’t get reps, which created something of a deficit. But if the players don’t buy in, you’re only going to be so good.
As part of a new group of African-American head coaches who got the position this year, do you feel like the NBA is making progress on diversity?
It’s a good first step. But I don’t think it’s reflective of anything more than that a broader scope of candidates have had the chance to put themselves in front of opportunities.
What impact on a player are you most proud of as a coach?
I’m not going to name names, but there was a player in a media spotlight, and it was gratifying to hear them, when asked, “Out of all the coaches you’ve had, who has impacted you the most?” He said me. And he explained why, and it was something very simple: always being available. Being there, being present, any time he wanted to talk, to shoot. At the time I thought that was just my job, being present, putting in that sweat equity. But that cumulative effect elevated my platform so that guy knew I was trying to do anything to ensure that we win.