Wes Unseld Jr. at his introductory virtual press conference Credit: Screenshot via Washington Wizards' Zoom

For Wes Unseld Jr., it all starts with a meticulous attention to detail. The margin of error of winning games in the NBA is razor thin and while the performance of the players on the court has the most impact on a team’s result, the execution of the head coach also influences the outcome of games. Unseld has already proven himself as a valuable addition to what the Wizards are trying to build this season. Washington has started the season 5-1 for the first time since 2005 after beating the Boston Celtics, 115-112, in double overtime.

Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma joked after one of the team’s recent wins about how involved Unseld is during the game.

“He calls a play every time down the court,” Kuzma said. “He lets us rock out out there. As long as you’re playing defense, doing the right things, you’ve got a lot of freedom out there.”

One major improvement has been on the defensive end, which Unseld emphasizes. Last year the Wizards finished in the bottom third in terms of defensive efficiency for the third year in a row. Under Unseld, the Wizards are ranked seventh.

“It was very electric, excited and energetic from start to finish, very attentive to detail,” All-Star guard Bradley Beal told reporters after the team’s first training camp session. “Coach Wes has a strong voice about himself. He can very much control the room, which is very impressive, just his principles, and he’s very defensive oriented. Our whole first practice today was strictly defense, so he’s very much setting the tone for how we need to be and what our focus needs to be on.”

Since those early days of training camp, the Wizards have tightened up their pick-and-roll and transition defense which are key components of a good defensive team. In previous years, Wizards players appeared confused in their pick-and-roll coverages. Oftentimes defensive switches would end up being late, which led opposing players to scoring wide-open baskets. The defensive switches this season happen less frequently but the communication between teammates has improved dramatically. 

“He’s very adamant on principles, being accountable for your man, being accountable for being a help man and trusting that your team will have your back,” Beal told reporters in September. “So there are times we will switch. But we won’t do a lot of that this year. One of the quotes [Unseld] said is, ‘Know you have help but don’t depend on your help.'”

On the offensive end, the ball moves much more fluidly around the court, allowing for multiple Wizards to have strong outings on any given night. Against the Celtics, Beal performed at an All-Star level finishing with 36 points and making a few clutch baskets late in the game to propel the team to victory. In the 122-111 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 28, it was a more balanced attack that saw four Wizards players score at least 20 points.

Actual play calling in the NBA has lessened in importance over the years because many coaches grant the best basketball players in the world the freedom to get on the court and play within the flow of the game, but setting a foundation as Unseld has done makes it a lot easier for the coach to convey teachable moments on the floor when they are needed. 

The biggest part of the job description of the modern NBA coach is being able to manage personalities. Although Unseld doesn’t have the advantage of being a former NBA player, he grew up around the game his entire life. “He’s a player’s coach,” Kuzma said.

Thus far, Unseld has shown the ability to manage young players on the court as well as counseling them off of it. The Wizards are in a precarious position as a team, with one of the brightest young stars, Rui Hachimura missing the early stages of training camp due to an excused team absence for what they are describing as “personal reasons.” Unseld has said that the Wizards plan on taking their time easing Hachimura back into the fold of team activities.

“Rui is progressing daily and comes to the facility regularly. He is working on conditioning and putting in court time—all part of a return to play plan that Wes refers to each time asked,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard tells City Paper.

And although the team has experienced success this season, Unseld wants the team to remain even keeled. The Wizards may be outperforming expectations under the guidance of a new coach, but they’ve only played six games.

“We’re not satisfied nor should we be,” Unseld told reporters after Saturday’s win against the Celtics. “It’s early in the season. It’s great that we can get those wins and get off to the right start. That was a point of emphasis for us back in September heading into training camp and the preseason, so it’s good that we’ve done that but we still have a ton of work to do. We take the wins. It’s OK to win ugly but we can’t afford to be satisfied.”