Wes Unseld Jr. believes Wizards have laid good defensive foundation

Unseld Jr. believes Wizards have laid good defensive foundation originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — It’s highly likely no one talked more about the Wizards’ defensive shortcomings last season than head coach Wes Unseld Jr. After each game and practice, he addressed the media and it often came up. The Wizards doubled down on defense last summer, only to fall from 19th in defensive rating to 25th based on Basketball Reference’s measure of the stat.

But at the end of the 2021-22 season when Unseld Jr. went through his post-mortem evaluation, he was encouraged by some of what he noticed both in the numbers and on film. He sees reason to believe the Wizards have laid a strong defensive foundation, one they can build on with their new personnel and some calculated adjustments.

When it comes to their statistical output, Unseld Jr. saw positives in the types of shots they forced opponents to take.

“From a defensive perspective, analytically we did some good things. It didn’t necessarily translate in the overall ranking, but our defensive shot profile was great,” Unseld Jr. explained. “We had the No. 1 overall ranking in holding teams, minimizing our opponents’ 3-point attempts. We forced, I think, the third-most midrange shots. So, [these are] all numbers that you kind of look at and say that’s a great starting point, but what else can we do?”

The midrange stats depend on where you look. By NBA.com’s calculations, the Wizards actually forced the most midrange shots of any team (14.0/g).

Leading opponents into the midrange can be a sound strategy, as those shots are generally the least efficient. NBA players often shoot a higher percentage around the rim and 3-point shots count 50% more than twos. Based on the numbers, the ideal defensive play (besides a turnover, of course) is a contested shot in the midrange.

Limiting 3-point attempts was a big emphasis by Unseld Jr. last season, his first on the job, and the Wizards did indeed allow the fewest in the league, just 31.8 per game. But teams shot a relatively high percentage (36.1), the 10th-best allowed by a team. Still, the Wizards gave up the third-fewest made threes (11.5/g) and therefore the third-fewest points scored from the perimeter.

In the modern NBA, that’s an excellent indicator of success given the 3-point shot dictates offense to a significant degree. The Wizards will now have to do a better job of preventing their opponents from hurting them in other areas. For instance, sometimes selling out to take away a three allows an opposing player to get downhill off the dribble by driving past a closeout.

“I think it’s our overall hand activity, vocal effort, the communication piece. There are a lot of little things and details that I think we will be better for having gone through it that should translate into not only better defensive rankings and numbers, but also wins,” Unseld Jr. said.

“I do think getting guys with a little bit more savvy, a little more physicality, more veteran presence; I think will help guys in certain situations, when you have a lot of young guys out there, and it’s nobody’s fault.”

That veteran presence will be provided by new additions like Monte Morris, Will Barton, Delon Wright and Taj Gibson. But Unseld Jr. also sees value in what he calls “corporate knowledge,” the experience gained by those on the roster who now have one year playing in his system under their belt. Unseld Jr. mentioned 2021 first-round pick Corey Kispert specifically in that context.

It also applies to more tenured veterans like Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis who will spend plenty of time on the floor, executing his plans. Unseld Jr. saw encouraging signs when reviewing the tape of how some of the holdovers fared late last season. 

Porzingis, in particular, caught his eye.

“We saw in that small window towards the end of the year within specifically pick-and-rolls. He does a terrific job of baiting guys into that midrange shot. He knows when to step up and contest… I think he does a terrific job and he doesn’t get enough credit for it,” Unseld Jr. said.

There are little things Unseld Jr. has highlighted that could take that element of their defense up a notch as well. He mentioned closeouts, containment and shrinking driving avenues for ball-handlers. Tightening up those areas could help maximize Porzingis’ strengths as a rim protector.

The Wizards also added some personnel this offseason that could help their defense specifically, like Wright who has a long track record of forcing turnovers on the perimeter. But the groundwork had to be laid first and Unseld Jr. believes the Wizards have a sound structure they can go forward with.

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