Wes Unseld Jr. reflects on first season as Wizards coach

Wes Unseld Jr.

As far as first-year head coaches go, it’s difficult to find many that went through what Wes Unseld Jr. did. 

There were COVID-19 absences and scares all season, which kept Unseld away from the team for four games. The franchise’s best player, Bradley Beal, suffered a season-ending wrist injury before the trade deadline that essentially crippled the team’s chances of competing for a spot in the play-in tournament. After a 10-3 start, there were schisms on the roster that made their way into the public space. 

And through all of that, he was navigating the rigors of becoming a first-time head coach after years as an assistant. 

“I’m really proud to work with Wes and his staff,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said Tuesday. “I think they really have tremendous potential for the future this year. I’m not saying it was the third ring of Hell, but it was close for some of the things he had to face as a first-time head coach. But so did 29 other teams. The NBA don’t care. The schedule keeps coming.”

The Wizards finished the year 35-47, which was about what many expected entering the year. But the strong start changed expectations for the team, which made the ensuing weeks and months all the more frustrating. 


During the season, notably, there was a halftime skirmish between Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that drew attention all across the league. The Wizards had 29 players play at least one game in the season, which set a franchise record. 

Through the uncertainty, Unseld had to take a more macro view at relationships and circumstances than he ever had before as a coach. 

“I think I have more patience than I thought,” he cracked. “There’s a difference in being patient with people and patient in circumstance. I think it’s just that mindset of, you can only control the things you can control.”

What he controlled, though, was more than he’d ever been handed in his coaching career. 

As an assistant, coaching roles are more about one-on-one relationships with players and opponent-focused scouting. As a head coach, the role shifts into managing not just a specific function(s), but the entire operation. 

“It’s a different experience,” Unseld said. “We talked about it at length kind of all season, the adjustment from being an assistant to a head coach. Kind of retraining your thought process, even the day-to-day, how you work, becomes less and less about the opponent and more centered around your team and specifically managing people.”

So as Unseld heads into the second year as coach, and one everyone hopes provide fewer ups-and-downs than his first, he’s proven enough to have a ringing endorsement from his GM.

“That’s when you know you have a fantastic coach,” Sheppard said. “He treats everybody the same. It’s a remarkable ability to relate to people that Wes has. It’s only going to get better as you move forward.”