Wes Unseld Jr. sat between two of his new bosses and spoke firmly and confidently about his past, his present, and the Wizards’ future.
As general manager Tommy Sheppard, seated to Unseld’s right, and team owner Ted Leonsis, seated to Unseld’s left, heaped praise on the franchise’s 25th head coach, there was nothing he could do but smile. It looked natural to the man who had grinded his way up the coaching ranks, but in truth been long overdue for his moment in the spotlight.
The Unseld name, as everyone is well aware of, is Wizards' royalty. A No. 41 jersey hangs in the rafters of Capital One Arena to honor the great career of Wes Unseld Sr., who was a league MVP, an NBA champion and a long-time head coach and executive with the franchise.
But on Monday afternoon, Unseld Jr. was introduced as the team’s next head coach after four different stops around the NBA as an assistant. It was fitting for him in that way. He’ll return to D.C. to coach not far from where he learned the game.
“This is truly an honor to get an NBA coaching job, and certainly for it to happen here makes it that much more special,” Unseld said. “I couldn’t be more thankful to Mr. Leonsis and Tommy and his staff for this incredible opportunity. For this opportunity to unfold is so gratifying.”
Make no mistake: Unseld isn’t the coach of the Wizards because of his last name, nor for the fact that he was an assistant coach for the team from 2005-to-2011. It was dogged determination, Leonsis and Sheppard said, that led him to this point.
Unseld left for an opportunity with the Golden State Warriors in 2011. He joined the Orlando Magic in 2012 and later the Denver Nuggets in 2015, where he was plucked by good friend and executive Tim Connelly, who also began his career in Washington, and coached under Michael Malone. Both men were sad to lose Unseld from the Nuggets' staff, but happy for him, too.
“While I’m so thrilled and honored that we have Wes here, it wasn’t because of the legacy here,” Leonsis said. “It was because of the process and the game-planning and reviewing of the film together. Wes was just incredibly impressive with how relevant his understanding of what we needed and what we would do differently.”
After the Wizards were dispatched in the first round of the playoffs in five games by the Philadelphia 76ers, they worked together over the next few days to figure out the next steps for the franchise. There, a conclusion was reached to not extend former coach Scott Brooks and embark on a coaching search.
And after weeks of research and interviews, the Wizards think they’ve got the right man for the job.
“It certainly was a very long process from the outside looking in, but for us, it was really all about getting it right,” Sheppard said. “We interviewed a lot of candidates, we really kind of laid out what we were looking for and Wes hit every single mark with very high marks. There was no question in our mind that when we made the decision, we made the right one for us. We are so excited and thrilled to have everybody here and part of our family again.”
And those marks that Unseld nailed were clear to everyone.
The Wizards must improve on their defensive play, “immediately,” as Sheppard put it, in the 2021-22 season. The little things, like defensive intensity and communication, must be cleaned up. With a host of young players like Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Daniel Gafford, the newest coach would have to be skilled and well-versed at developing young talent.
Unseld’s remarks hit on every one.
Now, the man who played high school basketball at Loyola Blakefield in Towson, Md. and college ball at Johns Hopkins will get a chance to lead the local team, the one his father made such a name for all those years ago. Unseld Sr. passed away on June 2, 2020.
“I know my dad is up there smiling down, he’s probably chuckling,” Unseld said. “I know he’s extremely proud.”
While it’s clear the Wizards value Unseld for his basketball mind above all, that certainly has its roots in his upbringing where he got to be around his father. In Denver as an assistant, he was on a staff with a handful of other coaches who were the sons of former NBA coaches. Even in Towson and Baltimore, those memories haven’t been forgotten.
“Those environments were great for my formative years,” Unseld said. “I was around great coaches where it wasn’t necessarily just about winning, it was about building habits. Well-rounded human beings. I think you kind of carry some of these little tidbits with you. Yes, that is our goal, want to win, that’s what’s important, this is a results-driven business. But it’s also part of a journey. When you have great people around you, that journey is that much more special.”
Sheppard was along for the ride during that journey for years. He was hired in 2003 by the Wizards. There, he overlapped with Unseld, who rose from scout to assistant coach, and got some insight into what Unseld was and would become as a basketball mind.
Now, with both having climbed the NBA ladder, they felt it was the right time to join forces again and bring Unseld home to the Baltimore-Washington area.
“Getting to re-know Wes through this process, in terms of where he was as a coach, was very important because you’re about to work together,” Sheppard said. “I was amazed at Wes’ growth. His knowledge of the game, the responsibility he’s been given other places that he’s been made such a huge impression on me. I knew he had it in him, but when he showed it right up there front and center, that was really the moment of truth for me. This guy is ready to be a head coach.”