In quotes: Wes Unseld Jr. on the Wizards' 2021-22 season
Earlier this week, Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. addressed the media for the final time before heading into the offseason. In its first season under Unseld Jr., Washington recorded a 35-47 record, highlighted by a 10-3 start to the year and stretch of five wins in seven games in the season’s closing weeks. Unseld Jr. touched on the formative experiences of his first season as an NBA head coach, the growth of the team’s young players, where the Wizards can improve moving forward and more.
UNSELD JR.: (Being a head coach) is a different experience. We talked about it all season, the adjustment from being an assistant to a head coach. Re-training your thought process, even in the day-to-day how you work. The thought process becomes less and less about the opponent and more centered around your team and managing people. It’s not just touching players every day, but all the other pieces. It’s the strength and conditioning, it’s the equipment. It’s your staff. All those guys need attention. The scheduling piece. It’s an adjustment on a number of levels. It’s something you get more comfortable with as you go. Certainly an unbelievable experience.
At multiple points throughout the season, the Wizards’ rotation required a recalibration, either due to health and safety protocols, injuries to key contributors or a trio of deadline-day trades. The silver lining through all those challenges was the team’s ability to put young players in positions to fast-track their development, compete against higher-level competition and get a better idea of what they need to improve for the future.
UNSELD JR.: It never goes completely as planned, but I am proud of how they developed throughout the season. A lot of that is because of opportunity. I know (Wizards president and GM) Tommy (Sheppard) alluded to it…Corey is a prime example. You’re searching for minutes for him and he turns into your starter. Those minutes are invaluable. You can’t simulate those situations, those stretches, those types of environments in practice. To be a starter on the floor against marquee players. To me, it’s going to accelerate your learning curve and your overall maturation. I think being really efficient with these guys as far as their individual skill work and how that translates to a team game. You have to build on your weaknesses but also augment your strengths.
That growth was amplified in the final weeks of the season, where Unseld Jr. says he was able to dial up the development even more as young players saw more action.
UNSELD JR.: We were able to add a few more layers (defensively) – some zone, some box-and-one. Changing the dynamics on the fly, which was difficult early in the year. Once again, a lot of new players and new staff. That level of consistency is where we wanted to be. We found that later in the year and guys were able to absorb a little more, which I thought was terrific. There’s growth, even in a small window.
One of the team’s most notable development stories over the second half of the season was third-year forward Rui Hachimura, who expanded his game beyond the 3-point line and saw his role increase significantly as the season went along.
UNSELD JR.: I think Rui (Hachimura) took a big step. In the past, from my perspective, he was a mid-range player and in. He played in the dunker spot, off the elbow, played in the post. To see him step out offensively and add the 3-point dimension offensively is a huge piece. On the flip side, we put him in different situations. Not just switching onto the ball, but switching onto the ball in pick and rolls, which is a huge piece for a guy who had probably never done it. Once again, that’s one of those layers that we allude where there is growth – expanding on both sides of the ball for him will be great. He’s picked up a lot quite quickly.
Going into next season, high on the team’s to-do list will be improving on the defensive side of the court. Unseld Jr. addressed the team’s slide down the ranking as the season progressed and stressed the need to find consistency on that end.
UNSELD JR.: It’s a little misleading when you look at rankings alone. The numbers are going to change. At times it’s a matter of percent that changes a couple of positions. I’m not going to speak on what happened defensively last year – I wasn’t here, of course. I thought we started off pretty strong. Not only winning games, but we had to rely on our defense to do so…That was our calling card…I thought we let go of that once we started to get an offensive rhythm. But that’s no excuse. It has to be a mindset and a commitment from day one, throughout.