What Wizards fans might see from Wes Unseld Jr.'s defense

Daniel Gafford

To the relief of Wizards fans everywhere, new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said on Wednesday that Washington wouldn't rely as heavily on a switching defense as much as years past. 

If this is ultimately the case, gone are the days of Raul Neto getting switched onto wings like Tobias Harris and Jayson Tatum. Or Davis Bertans getting stuck on shifty point guards over and over again. The 2021-22 Wizards are better equipped to switch if they need to, but diversity of scheme is important when it comes to playing defense in the NBA. 

So if the Wizards are committing to switching less, what will their pick-and-roll defense look like? There are a number of options Unseld Jr. could deploy, but based on how he's run the Nuggets defense in the past, two specific coverages seem more likely than others. 

Option 1: Drop coverage

Every NBA team's pick-and-roll defense is centered around what the big man does. Opposing playmakers run pick-and-roll to create an advantage and bend the defense, and the best way to do that is to get the biggest and slowest player on the other team heavily involved in the action. 

For the Wizards, deciding how to use Daniel Gafford, Montrezel Harrell and Thomas Bryant (when returned from injury) is step one. 

For Gafford and Harrell specifically, both players have found success playing drop in the past. "Drop" coverage is played how it sounds. Once the big man's assignment sets a screen, the big plays back on the ball handler to protect the rim. Meanwhile, the defender who was screened rotates around to either cover the rolling screener or pick back up on the ball handler depending on who the big man commits to. 


This type of defense usually works when your big man can either alter a ton of shots at the rim (Gafford) or can get in the right position to take charges and/or force tough shots (Harrell). Gafford averaged 3.6 blocks per 36 minutes with the Wizards last season and immediately became the team's best rim protector after the deadline, while Harrell drew a league-high 22 charges with the Lakers. 

The Bucks and Jazz are two teams that love to use drop, since they've had Brook Lopez and Rudy Gobert as their starting centers for years. It's a great way to limit attempts at the rim and makes it easier to cover corner threes, but it makes you vulnerable against great pull-up jump shooters. 

This makes drop coverage a great scheme to use during the regular season against teams without elite perimeter scorers. But once you get to the playoffs and you have to go against guys like James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young and Jayson Tatum, you're going to want to switch things up. 

Option 2: Playing at the level of the screen

When teams guard pick-and-rolls at the level of the screen, it can look a lot similar to drop coverage. The key difference is the big man plays much farther up on the ball handler to take away the pull-up jump shot opportunities that drop coverage typically leaves open. 

The only problem is your big better have good feet because he has to stay in front of the opposing ball handler long enough for his teammates to rotate and close off the paint. It also opens up the pass to the roller, so all five guys have to be connected on those plays to get consistent stops. Harrell and Gafford both demonstrated an ability to play at the level last season, but Harrell may be a bit better at it right now thanks to his agility as a 6'8 center. 

Unseld Jr. utilized this coverage a lot in Denver with Nikola Jokic. You'd think a lumbering big man like Jokic would be better in a drop coverage to limit the amount of time he spends in space, but Unseld Jr. once asked Jokic where he liked to defend in pick-and-roll.

Jokic said, "Up," so that's what they did, and it worked a treat. 


Jokic doesn't have the quickest feet, but his instincts are sharp and he has incredibly quick hands that help him thwart the other offense's flow on pick-and-roll. What was once the worst defense in the league turned into a top-15 unit within a couple of years thanks to Unseld Jr. playing to his players' strengths. 

This has been Unseld Jr.'s M.O. since he was hired back in July, and Wizards fans can probably expect the Wizards to play different defenses based on the personnel they have on the floor. 

The other team has a good big man and guards that like to drive? The Wizards can go with Gafford in a drop coverage. 

Another team has great pull-up shooters and ball movement? Time to put in Harrell and play at the level of the screen. 

In today's NBA, defenses have to be versatile not just with their personnel but in their scheme as well. The Wizards have some big men with different strengths and a coach seemingly hellbent on building his game plans around his player's ability. 

Those factors together usually make for a pretty good defense.