Can ball movement be a trademark for Unseld Jr.?

Deni Avdija

Earlier this season, when he was playing against the Wizards as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Tomas Satoransky noticed some things he liked about Washington's offense under first-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr.

"I like the game the Wizards play this year," Satoransky said. "I already told them at the beginning of the year when we were playing against them that I love the game they play. Very unselfish group of guys, an international group of guys that know how to play and they play hard."

Little did Satoransky know, he would sign with the Wizards just months later, returning him to the franchise he began his NBA career with. He was bought out by the Spurs and signed a deal with Washington, and not long after that played his way into the starting lineup. Even with the Wizards' loss to the Hawks on Wednesday night, they are 5-3 with him as their starting point guard.

Satoransky is now running Unseld Jr.'s offense, which lately has featured excellent ball movement. On Tuesday night in their win over Minnesota, the Wizards set a season-high with 38 assists. They have had 30-plus assists in three of their last five games.

Unseld Jr. and his coaching staff have preached sharing the ball and creating an equal opportunity offense. It's especially helpful with star guard Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma out due to injury. Though they have Kristaps Porzingis as their No. 1 scoring option, their offense needs to be by committee to thrive without Beal.


"The coaching staff and Wes, they gave us some stats of when we get [29] assists, or over that number, we're [13-3], some crazy number," Porzingis said. "Pretty much the message was that the more assists we get, the more we share the ball, the better we play and the better also our defensive numbers are."

The Wizards have done more passing this season than they did last year, as they average 288.5 passes per game this season compared to 267.5 in 2020-21. Their assists are slightly down, but about the same; 25.1 per game compared to 25.5. But that number is contingent on making open shots, which was a major issue for the Wizards earlier this season in particular.

Regardless of the numbers, Satoransky's comments suggest there has been a difference in style, one that players may appreciate. Unseld Jr. was happy to hear that assessment.

"It's a compliment. Of course, we want to dictate schematically how we play with who we have. That's going to dictate a lot of it. But that's something that we've preached since Day 1," he said.

"To see it get a little bit more momentum right now, and when you are making shots of course the assist numbers go up, but guys have bought into that and the unselfish nature of it. And it's not just the assists, it's also the hockey assists, it's the screen assists, it's the cutting and giving yourself up for your teammate. That whole mentality; do something for someone else. I think guys like to play that way."

Ball movement has always been the goal for the Wizards this season, but recent personnel changes may have helped that cause. In addition to the pass-first Satoransky, the Wizards acquired point guard Ish Smith at the trade deadline and were able to give second-year forward Deni Avdija more ball-handling responsibilities. All three have a knack for creating plays for others.

The Wizards have seen an uptick in offense after those changes. Since the trade deadline, the Wizards' offensive rating has gone up to 114.2 compared to their 110.5 average for the season. 

Certainly, they still have plenty of room to improve, but the way the Wizards play under Unseld Jr. caught Satoransky's attention. Maybe it will do the same for other players down the road.