In quotes: Unseld Jr. introduced as Wizards head coach
Earlier this week, the Wizards introduced Wes Unseld Jr. as the franchise’s next head coach, the culmination of a 24-year climb up the NBA coaching ranks – a climb that began in D.C. in 1997. Along with his wife, two kids, sister and mother, Unseld Jr. arrived at Capital One Arena for the first time as the team’s head coach. After meet-and-greets and photoshoots, the Wizards’ newest leading man sat down to address the D.C. faithful for the first time.
Unseld Jr. sat flanked by Monumental Sports & Entertainment Chairman & CEO Ted Leonsis on his left and Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard on his right. The trio spoke for over 30 minutes in a Q&A and press conference session hosted by Wizards radio broadcaster Dave Johnson, discussing Unseld Jr.’s career journey, the organization’s intensive interview and decision-making process and what the Wizards need to do to improve on the court in the immediate future.
UNSELD JR.: This is truly an honor to get an NBA head coaching job – and certainly for it to happen here makes it that much more special. I couldn’t be more thankful to Mr. Leonsis, to Tommy [Sheppard] and his staff for this incredible opportunity. (It was) a long time in the waiting. I put in a lot of hours to get to this point. I put myself in position – and for this opportunity to unfold is so gratifying.
SHEPPARD: It gives us a great deal of pride to have Wes Unseld [Jr.] as our head coach. It certainly was a very long process from the outside looking in, but for us it was really all about getting it right. As we interviewed a lot of candidates, we really kind of laid out what we were looking for and Wes hit every single mark with very high marks. There was no question in our mind when we made the decision that we made the right one for us.
SHEPPARD: When we started this process, we set out to find the very best person. We interviewed former players, former head coaches, people from the WNBA, people from the NBA from years ago, people that are current assistants…every category you could possibly want because we wanted the diversity of ideas and inclusion of everyone. Again, as you go through this process, you can interview a lot of people, but sometimes, as they say, the cream rises – and this is where we ended up, where we landed on. It was a tremendous opportunity for us. I just think for where our team is and where we’re headed to, Wes is the perfect leader for that team.
LEONSIS: The move was about making the team better, winning and looking at what we had as an organization and what we needed. I love the experience Wes had at winning organizations, especially the work he had done in Denver. When you drill down on the process that Tommy and his staff ran, it was very, very comprehensive, but it was also trying to get to ‘What do we have today? What do we need to improve? What will we do differently?’ … Wes’ focus on defense and game planning and all of the little things, all of the details that get you to win a couple more games every year because you’re out-preparing the other team really gave great comfort to everyone in our ownership group that this was a good move.
Unseld Jr.’s journey to the Wizards’ head coaching job included stops in D.C., Golden State, Orlando and, for last six seasons, Denver, where he built a reputation for himself both tactically and developmentally. Sheppard, like Leonsis, was impressed with Unseld Jr.’s relentless attention to detail.
SHEPPARD: I can’t say enough about how meticulous Wes is as he prepares for games…The one thing that always stood out was his intelligence about the game and where the game is headed, the modern NBA and certainly his proficiency on the defensive side of the ball…His ability to have great, fantastic relationships with players. When you look at his career…he worked with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson when they were young; [Nikola] Vucevic, Tobias Harris and [Victor] Oladipo when they he was in Orlando – and certainly you look at the MVP season that [Nikola] Jokic had.
UNSELD JR.: At some point, you’ve got to learn to prepare like a head coach and less like an assistant. The details are important, but not as concerned with the minutiae of the day-to-day. It’s about managing people. That’s the biggest difference in taking that next step…The Xs and Os will take care of itself. That’s actually the easy part. It’s trying to manage people and get the best out of them. When you do that, you build yourself up to have a lot of success.
Front offices put prospective head coaches through rigorous situational testing and film breakdown, but those all-important people skills – like a coach’s ability to command a locker room – are more abstract. It was apparent to Sheppard and the rest of the Wizards brass that Unseld Jr. was ahead of the curve in that regard when recommendations from players around the league came pouring in throughout the interview process.
SHEPPARD: In the NBA, players talk to players and they were the best advocates of Wes Jr…A lot of our players heard from other players that played for Wes either in Denver or other places that he’d been. They were very aware of what they were getting as a head coach…A great deal of satisfaction for me is Wes’ reputation over 20-plus years as an assistant coach in the NBA. Players know – and they speak to each other – and that’s the best sales job we can possibly want is when another player from another team tells our player about what is coming through the door.
UNSELD JR.: The most important thing is you have to be authentic. I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Those relationships will develop organically. When that happens, it allows you to get through some of those tough stretches.
Unseld Jr. has already begun cultivating some of those relationships within the Wizards’ locker room, most notably through conversations with both Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook.
UNSELD JR.: I had great conversations with (Beal and Westbrook) and I felt like I was talking to the same person. The message was clear. They want to be coached. They’re looking for accountability and they are excited by this new opportunity…There’s an alignment there in thought. We’re on the same page with what’s going to be required of them.
UNSELD JR.: There is tremendous potential here…I’ve had a chance to meet with some of those department heads and just to see how their visions are aligned with mine. Obviously, it’s all geared to winning, but there’s a plan behind it. You feel really comfortable in this seat knowing that you have such a support system from a wide net of people who are not only competent, but extremely gracious with their time and we’re all pulling in the same direction.
LEONSIS: While I am so thrilled and honored that we have Wes here, it wasn’t because of the legacy here, it was because of the process and the game-planning and reviewing of the film together. Wes was just incredibly impressive with how relevant his understanding of what we needed and what we would do differently.
Unseld Jr. spoke extensively about pulling from experiences he gained growing up around his father, Wes Unseld Sr., a Hall of Famer and the best player in franchise history.
UNSELD JR.: The staff that I was a part of in Denver was very unique. Michael Malone, myself and David Adelman – all of our fathers coached in the NBA. It was like a trifecta. We could all draw on those experiences – even from our ball boy days until now. Those moments aren’t lost. You learn, you pick up things, nuanced things like how to read people, how to relate to people ad push the right buttons to get the most out of people. From afar, you observe some of that.
UNSELD JR.: I know my dad is up there smiling down.