How Unseld Jr. stays calm through chaos


WASHINGTON -- Wes Unseld Jr. leans in his chair at the Wizards practice facility and tilts his head as he smiles. He may be consumed with the day-to-day details as an NBA head coach, but when you sit back and think about all the unusual circumstances he's faced in his first year on the job, it really is quite remarkable.

His first season has been amid COVID-19 protocols, with the Wizards suiting up a franchise-record amount of players as a result. He missed four games himself after testing positive. Along the way, the team has had several public rifts among players, including one during halftime of a game. Their best player, Bradley Beal, suffered a season-ending injury before the All-Star break. And this is all while carrying the expectations of a team that made the playoffs last season and began this one 10-3.

"With this being my first experience in this chair, in a weird way it's the norm. I can't compare it to anything," Unseld Jr. told NBC Sports Washington. "But it's not lost on me that this has been a bizarre experience, just because of all the things that we've had to process and go through."

Through it all, Unseld Jr. has handled everything outwardly with poise and patience. His temperament on the sidelines and during press conferences has largely stayed the same. 

Unseld Jr. has certainly been tested. Due to hardship exemption contracts, the Wizards have had 29 players appear in games this season, the most in franchise history. For comparison, just four years ago in the 2017-18 season they had 15, meaning this year has nearly doubled that number.


Some of the 29 players were true emergency signings. Alize Johnson flew in to join the team in Miami and made his debut that night, after barely having a chance to introduce himself to his teammates, much less review the playbook. At one point, the Wizards were down six point guards after hardship signing Brad Wanamaker tested positive following his first game with the team.

When Unseld Jr. entered protocols in January, his lead assistant Pat Delany took his place, but after coaching only one game he also tested positive. Assistant coach Joseph Blair had to fill in for three games before Unseld Jr. was cleared.

Unseld Jr. had been on the other side of that situation himself before. When he was the lead assistant for the Denver Nuggets, he replaced head coach Michael Malone for a game due to protocols.

"I think Wes, what allows him to get through these types of times is that he's been around the game his whole life with his father, through his very lengthy career working his way up to be a head coach and what he went through in Denver the last few seasons with us going through a bubble and a COVID season," Malone said. "Just all the things [the Wizards have] gone through, I think Wes is made for this and will continue to guide this team in the right direction."

Unseld Jr. may have also been uniquely prepared to deal with some of the locker room dysfunction that bubbled over earlier this season. There was a halftime skirmish involving Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, plus two arguments during games between Davis Bertans and Deni Avdija. Each time, Unseld Jr. had to address the incidents privately and publicly.

Unseld Jr. says managing people is "probably the biggest part" of his job as a head coach and he draws on experience going back to his early days as a player development assistant for the Wizards in the early 2000s. He would form relationships with players during individual film sessions and 1-on-1 offseason workouts. He learned early on that getting to know players beyond the game of basketball is pivotal in earning their trust.

"If you don't have that underlying relationship then it doesn't matter," he said. "I think in sports and entertainment, you forget the human element. You get caught up in the numbers and you look at the analytics and that says one story or portrays a certain picture, but you've gotta understand the mentality of where a guy is at emotionally sometimes."

Unseld Jr. happened to begin his coaching career with a Wizards team notorious for their volatile locker room, headlined by Gilbert Arenas. But, for as infamous as those teams were in that regard, Unseld Jr. has learned over the years that every team has its own set of problems.

"It was my first experience as an assistant. To be honest, I didn't know any better until you go to different places and there's always something," Unseld Jr. said.


"A great line from a coach that I worked with was 'never underestimate the dysfunction of the other team.' Any time you think your team is going through some things, if you know the inner workings of the other 29, they've got issues sometimes just as worse, if not more. It's not unique at all."

Player mediation is about managing different types of personalities and Unseld Jr. received an early introduction working with someone who has a famously strong will. Back in his early 20s, Unseld Jr. got his NBA start as a scout in the Wizards' organization working under then-executive Michael Jordan, who trusted his opinion enough to pull him off the road and away from his role with the Washington Mystics to spend more time around him with the Wizards.

Jordan and Unseld Jr. would meet often about player personnel, particularly around the draft and free agency. 

"If you had an opinion, he would challenge you on it. But if you stated your opinion and held your ground, he liked that. He would just kinda go 'okay.' He would test you a little bit. We had some great debates," Unseld Jr. recalled.

"He trusted that you put in the time and did your homework, so you were coming from a place of where it wasn't just a random opinion. It was knowledge-based and you were well-versed and not just trying to argue."

When Unseld Jr.'s father, Wes Unseld Sr., passed away in June of 2020, Jordan sent him a long message to share his condolences.

"It was really nice of him," Unseld Jr. said.

Unseld Jr. has come a long way since the days of lobbying Jordan in front office meetings and watching film with Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Now he's back on the bench in Washington, but as the head coach and with that a lot more responsibility.

Ultimately, it's up to him to navigate the Wizards players through whatever they encounter and this year has featured plenty of chaos. His ability to stay even keeled throughout that turmoil has impressed Beal, for one.

"It's a lot. You're asking somebody to come in and basically turn around a franchise. It's pretty much a whole new team, new coach, new system; everything. You're asking him to come out and do it at a high level," Beal said.

"That's tough on a coach, a first-year coach. I'm very impressed with how well he's handled the adversity... I have a huge respect for coach, for sure."

If Unseld Jr. can handle this season, with all the hurdles that have been thrown in his way, future ones may feel like a piece of cake in comparison.