- The Washington Times
Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Wes Unseld Jr. said he doesn’t want to be known solely as a defensive coach. The Washington Wizards hired him, after all, to lead and win games. He’s no longer an assistant with a specific focus in one area.

That said, it wasn’t a surprise to learn what the new Wizards coach focused on during the first day of training camp.

“There was a heavy emphasis this morning,” Unseld said Tuesday, “if I had to guess it’d be (an) 80-20 (split), defense to offense.”

Unseld spent the morning practice going over “foundational” defensive concepts and schemes, emphasizing a “simple and consistent” approach for how he wants the Wizards to play when the season opens next month.

Last season, the Wizards had the 20th-ranked defense in the NBA — the team’s third-straight below-average finish in the category.

The Wizards haven’t fielded a top-10 defense since 2014-15, when they ranked sixth.

Unseld was hired to change that. And in their first impression, players like Bradley Beal and Daniel Gafford could tell Unseld was serious about instilling a new defense-first mentality for the Wizards.

Beal, for instance, praised Unseld for being “very attentive to detail,” telling reporters the coach can control a room with his voice. Gafford said Unseld spent most of the practice going over how the Wizards would defend the pick and roll.

“He’s very much setting the tone for how we need to be, what our focus needs to be on,” Beal said. “It was great. Everybody was locked in. There was not, not too many mishaps. Everybody was on the same page. … It was exciting.” 

Beal, in his 10th season and on his third head coach, acknowledged that most coaches focus on installing defensive schemes when training camp opens. Still, Beal described Unseld‘s approach to that side of the ball as “genius.” Beal said Unseld is very vocal in communicating his vision to players, stressing accountability on the defensive end and forming an identity around that.

On the eve of training camp, the Wizards held a team meeting in which Unseld delivered a message to the group, Beal said. Unseld told them that the Wizards’ offense “wasn’t a problem” — but the issues they must fix include running back in transition, rebounding off misses and staying with their assignment.

“Things I’m guilty of as well,” said Beal, who told reporters that Unseld was trying to hold the group accountable. 

As another example, Unseld told his team that if they had just made one more stop per quarter last season, they’d have gone from the bottom-tier defensively to the top 10, Beal said. 

“As soon as we can grasp these things and guys can understand their responsibilities,” Unseld said, “I think we’ll be better for it down the line.”

In Denver, Unseld was praised for adapting to his personnel. League MVP Nikola Jokic, for instance, was often torched in pick-and-roll situations. The Nuggets, under Unseld‘s tutelage, adapted by having the center aggressively play the screen. 

Unseld said he plans to tailor Wizards game plans to the team’s personnel. He highlighted Gafford, in particular, as a type of center he has never worked with before — one that should allow the Wizards to protect the rim while also being able to attack on the ball. “It’s a weapon, I’m honestly not used to having,” Unseld said.

Gafford said he accepts the responsibility. Under former coach Scott Brooks, the 22-year-old, acquired in a midseason trade, had trouble staying on the floor because of foul trouble and conditioning issues. But he said Tuesday that he knows the Wizards are counting on him to play more minutes and impact the game defensively. 

“The main thing is protecting home,” Gafford said, “making sure no one gets easy shots on the inside … trying to keep people out of the paint as much as possible. Those are the two main points that stand out to me.”

While he’s willing to adapt to personnel, Unseld has a set of defensive principles. “Simple and consistent” means that he does not want players to make undisciplined gambles for steals or blocks. Stay focused, stay within your game and lower the team’s foul rate — the Wizards had the most fouls per game a year ago with 21.8. 

The Wizards will also switch less than they did last season, Beal said — with the coach “adamant” that players stick to their man. 

“One of the quotes he said is, ‘You know you have help, but don’t depend on your help,’” Beal said. “Don’t depend on your help. Guard your man.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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