Unseld Jr. maximizing first full offseason as Wizards coach originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Wes Unseld Jr. estimates he will fly a total of nearly 40,000 miles just this summer, so not including all the midseason road trips as head coach of the Washington Wizards.
Unseld Jr. traveled to Latvia for the first time to see Kristaps Porzingis. He went to L.A. to see Daniel Gafford. Right now he’s in Cairo, Egypt, also for the first time, coaching young players from Africa for the Basketball Without Borders camp. And in about a month he will be in Tokyo, Japan as the Wizards play the defending-champion Warriors in two preseason games.
That’s a lot of travel, but it was all part of an effort Unseld Jr. highlighted this offseason to spend time with his players and try to build a more cohesive team entering his second year on the job.
“I’ve bounced around quite a bit. We made it a big point of emphasis to get out and see players,” Unseld told NBC Sports Washington in a conversation from Cairo.
“We’ve had opportunities to get out as a staff and also players to get together. I really missed that window last summer, for obvious reasons. I think it’s going to pay dividends that these guys have been able to spend some time on and off the floor, get to know each other, develop that degree of synergy that we all know is important for winning culture.”
Face time between coaches and players has been a priority this offseason and, as Unseld Jr. noted, so is getting healthy. The Wizards had a collection of players dealing with injuries down the stretch of last season including Bradley Beal, whose year was cut short due to left wrist surgery. Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma also missed time in the final weeks with minor knee issues.
Those three have formed the nucleus of the Wizards’ roster, yet they have yet to play on the court together in an NBA game. Beal’s season ended before Porzingis arrived in a February trade.
Unseld Jr. says a big part of training camp will be figuring out what those three are capable of as a trio.
“I’m hoping it works wonders. You look at them individually, we all know they are really good players. We’ve seen them excel in their own right. The combination of those three is somewhat of a mystery, but that’s been a big part of what we’re trying to dive into as we get to the end of the summer into September. We’ll get these guys back and get an opportunity to implement some things and see how it looks,” Unseld Jr. said.
Instead of wholesale change, the Wizards decided to plug the gaps around those three. They brought in Monte Morris to start at point guard with Delon Wright providing defense and 3-point shooting behind him. Will Barton was also acquired in the Morris trade from Denver and may be the favorite going into camp to start at the three, between Beal at the two and Kuzma at the four.
But ultimately the Wizards’ success will be likely be determined by how Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis can mesh as the team’s top-3 scoring options. Beal is hoping to reinstall himself as one of the best scorers in the NBA after an off-year hampered by injuries. Kuzma will aim to carry over his strong finish to the 2021-22 season while Porzingis will need to stay healthy after years of durability problems.
Unseld Jr. was a rookie last year and got a bit of a late start, as the Wizards hired him after a lengthy head coaching search. The COVID-19 pandemic also shortened the offseason last summer and that affected Unseld Jr.’s ability to connect with players.
This time, he was able to be much more involved. The Latvia trip, for example, allowed him to spend some quality time with Porzingis and the head coach of the Latvian national team, Luca Banchi.
“Really well-coached team, very well-respected head coach. I wanted to pick his brain on some things, how they use K.P.,” Unseld Jr. said.
Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis have a chance to be quite good, especially on offense. Whether they can reach their ceiling will be in part up to Unseld Jr., who figures to benefit from the experience of having one season as an NBA head coach under his belt.
Unseld Jr. has some ideas for how to do things differently in Year 2. Part of that is editing down some processes all across the board.
“I mean, you learn a ton. If you stop learning, that means you’re in trouble. There are a lot of things unforeseen as an assistant going to your first head job that are not even on your radar. There’s always going to be something that happens that is going to test you. You have to figure it out and manage to navigate through it,” he explained.
“But I feel more confident as far as where we are, how we want to play. The big mandate internally for us was to be more efficient, not necessarily between the lines, that’s a given, but how we operate, how we work, how we travel, being more efficient with our players’ time. All those things that I think in a vacuum don’t seem like a big deal, but collectively can really make a difference in their daily approach.”
Wizards team president Tommy Sheppard likes to say the best thing about rookies in the NBA is that after their first season they aren’t rookies anymore. The same will apply to Unseld Jr., who is set to enter his second season more experienced, more connected to his players and with a few more frequent flyer miles.