Wizards

People who knew Wes Unseld Jr. on why he's a great hire

Wizards

By now, you may have heard the Washington Wizards in the mid- to late-2000s had an interesting mix of personalities in the locker room. The most high-profile incidents involved Gilbert Arenas, but he was just one of many players they had who were strong-willed and enigmatic, each in their own way.

Talk to those who were in the organization those days and they will tell you, nobody could connect with everyone - from players to coaches to the front office - quite like Wes Unseld Jr. could.

When general manager Tommy Sheppard embarked on a search for the Wizards' next head coach in mid-June, he said he wanted a strong communicator. In Unseld Jr., he has one who holds a long track record of relating to players and being able to get a message across, whatever that message needs to be.

That was a necessary trait during Unseld Jr.'s early coaching days in Washington, where he served as an assistant from 2005 to 2011. Brendan Haywood was on the Wizards when Unseld Jr. joined the coaching staff after serving in the front office. 

"The thing I liked about Wes is he's even-keeled. Never got too high, never got too low. Very good guy. Got along with all the players and that was unique at that time because in that locker room, some guys were vibing with the coaching staff and some guys weren't. Wes was the guy that got along with everybody no matter what," Haywood recalled.

"You've gotta be able to communicate and I think that's going to be a strongpoint for Wes. He's going to be able to talk to Bradley Beal, he's going to be able to talk to Russell Westbrook. This is a guy who had to talk to Gilbert Arenas and, you know, Gilbert could be nuts sometimes. He just understands how to communicate and Wes is never going to B.S. you. Players can smell that."

 

Jared Jeffries played for Unseld Jr. in Washington and then served in the front office in Denver while Unseld Jr. was the associate head coach under Michael Malone. They became good friends over the years, as they are close in age and found common ground telling stories about their fathers.

Jeffries too remembers a tenuous locker room in Washington that Unseld Jr. was especially adept at navigating.

"Whenever Gilbert would go to being Gilbert, it was really Wes, man. It was Wes who would kind of like 'Come on, Gil. Put this together, listen here.' I think he really embraced that role," Jeffries said. 

"He was very, very close with Gil. He was close [with] everyone. Some of the frustrations that all players have, he was very good at talking guys off the ledge. There would be times where you would be frustrated with any coach, if you're not playing the minutes you feel you should be playing and he would come back and be like, 'Look, I understand what you're saying but look at it this way. Keep working and your minutes will come.' Having that mindset kept that team together for a lot because you always need those young coaches that can be in the ear of players and keep them off the ledge."

Jeffries remembers Unseld Jr. having a unique commitment to the craft, both in Washington and in Denver. He garnered respect from the players for being a "grinder" and always being available to meet at the gym for extra shooting work. Players could call him up and know he would be there shortly, ready to rebound and offer advice.

That work ethic and attention to detail, Tony Massenburg believes, was instilled by his father. Massenburg was on the Wizards' coaching staff with Unseld Jr. for one season in Washington and recalls Unseld Jr. taking the job very seriously at a young age.

"I remember he picked things up relatively quickly. He was very observant watching the head coaches. When he heard certain things, he was quick to reinforce them to the players," Massenburg said. "It was usually things that had to do with defense and the importance of setting solid screens and where those screens should be set. Just basically, attention to detail. That's also a trait I've seen in Gregg Popovich."

Massenburg, of course, won a title with the Spurs in 2005.

"When you talk about what has made him great, anybody who has ever played for Gregg Popovich will tell you he's a real stickler for the little things," Massenburg said. "Setting screens at the right angles and making sure you're always conscious of helping defensively, little things that don't necessarily show up in the stat sheet but have to be done in order to win basketball games."

 

Unseld's attention to detail has come in handy throughout different times in his career. With the Wizards, he stood out because of his scouting reports, which makes sense given his background as an advanced scout. In Denver, he was entrusted with their defensive scheme and Jeffries remembers Unseld Jr. having an acute awareness for defensive positioning. He was also patient in implementing defensive principles, sticking to his philosophy, while also being adaptive to new personnel year after year.

Unseld Jr. was so dedicated as an assistant coach that sometimes he needed others to lighten the mood. Jeffries remembers in Denver how Unseld Jr. didn't tell anyone his 40th birthday was approaching and downplayed it when colleagues brought it up. So, according to Jeffries, he and Nuggets president Tim Connelly "kidnapped" Unseld Jr. to celebrate with a trip to Las Vegas.

"He was going to try to just sneak by and not doing anything for his 40th," Jeffries said.

That serious, head-down approach was inherited from his father, Wes Unseld Sr., those who know him believe. Unseld Sr., who passed away June 2, 2020, is the most accomplished player in Wizards/Bullets history. He was a no-nonsense force in the paint, legendary for his screens and his outlet passes. Unseld Sr. carved out a Hall of Fame career by doing the dirty work on the glass and in the lane, despite being undersized for the position at 6-foot-7.

Unseld Sr. also served as a head coach in Washington and a front office executive. He was in the front office for a short period when Unseld Jr. served on the coaching staff, but none of the players ever saw Unseld Jr. receive special treatment. That's not how he operated.

"He was very serious," Haywood said of Unseld Sr. "I remember him pulling me and Jared Jeffries aside, like 'Hey listen, when we're losing the game, ain't nothing funny at the end of the game where you all should ever be laughing. If you want to laugh, go win some games.' He was that type of guy."

Unseld Sr. saw as many games as he could of Unseld Jr.'s career at Johns Hopkins University, where he led the team in field goal percentage twice. As Hopkins head coach Bill Nelson recalls, Unseld Jr.'s mother, grandfather and sister attended every game of his four-year career.

Unseld Sr., though, had a lot of respect for the program and never intervened as some parents do.

"Not much. It was not the typical parent that you seem to talk to these days. Some parents are wondering and talking about playing time. Never, never like that," Nelson said.

Nelson also coached Jeff Van Gundy and Andy Enfield during his long career. Van Gundy coached in the NBA and is now an analyst for ESPN, while Enfield coaches at USC.

 

Unseld Jr. is part of that coaching tree and all these years later, Nelson isn't surprised he's made it this far.

"A quiet leader, a coach's dream," Nelson said. "There were no distractions, no agenda. He was multi-talented, but never stood out. He was one of the top field-goal percentage shooters in Hopkins history. He was an excellent passer, an excellent rebounder. He didn't make mistakes. He was a guy that analyzed the game quite a bit and he did what was best for the team."

Unseld Jr. was a 6-foot-3 post player, who was voted captain of the team twice, as a junior and senior after returning from a torn ACL his sophomore year. Nelson called two-time captains "rare" in his experience, but it was an early sign he had what it took to become a good coach someday.

"I'm sure Wes will have great relationships with his players because he always had terrific relationships with his teammates and the coaching staff. He's a wonderful young man," Nelson said.

That last detail is a common theme in researching Unseld Jr.'s background. Massenburg called him "an all-around good guy." Jeffries said he should be easy for Wizards fans to root for because he is easy to like.

"You've probably never met a better person," Jeffries said. "I think it gets overlooked in this life for a great person to have success. This is an example of a great person having success. I think that we should all be happy when a nice guy wins."