After a promising freshman year as a small forward for the Johns Hopkins men’s basketball program in 1993-94, Wes Unseld Jr.’s sophomore campaign ended almost as soon as it began because of a torn ACL in one of the team’s earliest games.
The way Edward Richardson, who was an assistant on head coach Bill Nelson’s staff at the time, remembers it, Unseld tried to power through the injury.
“He didn’t really say anything about it,” Richardson said. “We knew that something had happened, but he wasn’t moaning in agony or holding his leg. He was limping, and we asked, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, coach. It doesn’t feel good.’ And once [the team doctors] said torn ACL, you would have never known. He could have just as easily stepped off the curb and twisted his ankle. That’s the type of kid he was.”
That kind of determination might be useful for Unseld, who was introduced Monday afternoon as the head coach of the Washington Wizards. The son of the late Wes Unseld, who led the Washington Bullets to their first and only NBA championship in 1978 and served as the franchise’s head coach from 1988 to 1994 and general manager from 1996 to 2003, the younger Unseld replaced Scott Brooks, who could not agree with the club on a new contract after three playoff appearances in five years.
“For it to happen here certainly makes it that much more special and I couldn’t be more thankful to Mr. Leonsis, Tommy and his staff for this incredible opportunity,” said Unseld Jr., who will be tasked with guiding the Wizards out of the first round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season. “A long time in waiting, and I put in a lot of hours to get to this point. For this opportunity to unfold is so gratifying.”
Unseld Jr.’s return to the organization is almost storybook. His father, who died June 2, 2020, at the age of 74 due to “lengthy health battles, most recently with pneumonia,” was selected with the second overall pick in the 1968 NBA draft by the then-Baltimore Bullets and played for the franchise until it changed its name to the Capital Bullets in 1973 and then the Washington Bullets the following season. He spent his entire 14-year career with the club, becoming recognized as the team’s greatest player and a Hall of Famer in 1988.
Unseld Jr., who spent the past six seasons as an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets, said he envisioned his father watching Monday’s introduction with a smile on his face.
“He’s probably chuckling, thinking, ‘You moron, I told you not to do this,’” the younger Unseld quipped. “So I know he’s extremely proud.”
Unseld’s roots to the Baltimore area run deep. Having grown up in Catonsville and then Westminster, he emerged as one of the top basketball players at Loyola Blakefield.
Mike Savage, who was an assistant coach on his late father Jerry’s staff for more than a decade for the Dons, called Unseld Jr. “the ideal student-athlete.”
“He was very coachable, and he was a very talented high school basketball player,” Savage said. “He was very easy to work with. He was outstanding in every way. You wish all of your players would act the same way. He set a really good example. He was on the quieter side, but he would set the example by the way he went out and about and the way he played and everything that he did.”
Nelson, the Blue Jays’ all-time winningest coach with 501 victories from 1986-87 to his final season in 2016-17, described Unseld similarly.
“He was a coach’s dream,” Nelson said. “There was no agenda, no distractions. He was a great teammate. … Wes was one of those guys where it was never about him. He was mature beyond his years. He was extremely talented, but he never stood out.”
At 6 feet, 4 inches, Unseld Jr. was what Richardson — who mentored the team’s interior contributors — termed as an undersized post player. But what he lacked in size, he compensated for in energy.
“He had superior quickness,” Richardson said. “He could get off of the floor faster than most people, and he could jump high. … He had all of the moves, he had a nice jump shot, he was quick, he was light on his feet, and defensively he played much bigger than he was.”
Both Savage and Richardson said they recognized coaching tendencies from Unseld even as a player.
“He definitely had that potential because he was one of those players that really understood the game and where to go and what to do,” Savage said. “I could see as a coach that he was very knowledgeable not just about what he was supposed to be doing, but what other players around him were supposed to be doing. He was very good in that way. In terms of running an offense or a defense, you could rely on him to not just know where he needs to go, but also to help other guys out in terms of where they need to be.”
When he graduated from Hopkins in 1997, Unseld Jr. ranked 15th in school history in points (875), 10th in free throws made (211) and minutes played (2,045), 13th in rebounds (427) and 15th in steals (69). He currently ranks 11th in career field-goal percentage (.551) and 15th in blocks (60).
Nelson said Unseld Jr. could have returned for a medical redshirt year and easily joined the 1,000-point club. Instead, Unseld Jr. began his career with Washington as a scout in 1997 and moved up the ladder until he was an assistant coach there from 2005 to 2011 for Eddie Jordan then Flip Saunders.
Unseld Jr. spent the 2011-12 season as an assistant for the Golden State Warriors then the next two years with the Orlando Magic. He spent the past six seasons — the most recent as the associate head coach — as an assistant with Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, who played four years at Loyola Maryland from 1989 to 1993 and began coaching at the Friends School.
Unseld Jr. credited his upbringing in the Baltimore area for shaping him as an individual and a coach.
“Those environments were great for my formative years,” he said. “I was around great coaches where it wasn’t necessarily just about winning. It was about building habits and well-rounded human beings. As the Jesuits would say, ‘Men for others.’ You kind of carry some of these little tidbits with you, and as I take a step back, that is our goal. Yes, we want to win. This is a results-driven business. But it’s also part of the journey, and obviously, when you have great people around you, that journey is that much more special.”
Nelson said he admires Unseld’s patience in his development to becoming a head coach.
“As I look back, he was so into doing the right thing at the right time,” Nelson said. “It was never about Wes. It has taken him a while to get this opportunity, and I think possibly one of the reasons is he was never up there trying to sell himself, and I give him so much credit for that. He has really paid his dues.”
With the Wizards, Unseld Jr. inherits a roster headlined by a pair of All-Stars in shooting guard Bradley Beal and point guard Russell Westbrook and fortified by youthful talent in centers Thomas Bryant and Daniel Gafford and small forwards Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura. Blending them into a productive unit against Eastern Conference rivals such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks will be a top priority, but Richardson expressed confidence in Unseld’s ability to do so.
“I think he will have their respect,” he said. “Based on his resume and based on his years of experience as an assistant coach in the NBA and the people that he’s worked with, I think he will come into the door with a certain amount of respect that superstars will have for the people who they think know the game. I don’t think it’s going to be one of those things where people are going to question, ‘Does he really know the game? Does he know what he’s doing?’ I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”