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Wizards offer head coaching job to Wes Unseld Jr., son of Bullets legend

Wes Unseld Jr. has spent the past six seasons on the Denver Nuggets coaching staff. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said Wes Unseld Sr. led the Baltimore Bullets to the NBA championship. They were the Washington Bullets at that time. The article has been corrected.

The Washington Wizards are making an offer to Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr. to become the franchise’s coach, multiple people with knowledge of the situation said Friday. The team is confident it can finalize a deal this weekend.

The hiring would be a meaningful homecoming for Unseld, whose father, Wes Sr., led the organization then called the Washington Bullets to its lone championship in 1978 and who would return to the city where he spent the first 14 years of his pro basketball career.

His hiring would close a coaching search the Wizards began shortly after parting with Scott Brooks on June 16. ESPN first reported on the Wizards’ offer to Unseld.

The Pacers, Magic, Trail Blazers, Mavericks and Celtics all hired new coaches in the past month. The Hawks, who fired Lloyd Pierce in March, removed Nate McMillian’s interim tag and named him coach in early July. The Pelicans are close to hiring Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green, according to multiple reports.

At the Unselds’ School, bracing for fall without ‘Mr. Wes’

In Unseld, who would be the third coach hired since Ted Leonsis became the team’s majority owner in 2010 and the 25th in franchise history, Washington would get someone with more than just a famous pedigree. The team targeted an experienced assistant who is broadly familiar with the franchise, having worked there from 1997 to 2011, and who specializes in coaching defense, the side of the ball the Wizards most desperately need improved.

The Towson native spent six seasons on Michael Malone’s staff in Denver, the last of which he served as associate head coach. Unseld devoted most of his tenure to elevating a defense that ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in the two seasons before he and Malone arrived; the Nuggets were 11th in the NBA this past year.

His defensive work appears even more impressive because it wasn’t his primary focus as he climbed the NBA’s coaching ranks.

Before Denver, Unseld had stops in Golden State and Orlando. But he spent the bulk of his early career as a scout with the Wizards and Mystics, landing in Washington straight out of Johns Hopkins University in 1997 before working his way up to an assistant job in 2005. As a scout, he worked extensively on offense.

Unseld’s hiring would come 13 months after his father died of complications from pneumonia. The Wizards and Mystics wore a No. 41 patch on their jerseys all season to honor the tenacious Hall of Fame center who coached and served as general manager in Washington after he spent his entire 13-year playing career there. His jersey already hung in the rafters at Capital One Arena.

The Wizards wouldn’t just be bringing a beloved name back to Washington. They would also be hiring a Black man as a coach for the first time in more than a decade — at a time when athletes and advocates are pushing for more people of color to occupy top jobs across sports leagues.

Unseld would not be the organization’s first Black coach — K.C. Jones was hired in 1973 — but he would be the first Black man in the position since Ed Tapscott took over for Eddie Jordan on an interim basis in the 2008-09 season. The Wizards’ past three coaches were White, and in a news conference after it was announced Brooks would not return, Washington General Manager Tommy Sheppard stressed that assembling a diverse candidate pool was a priority. Milwaukee Bucks assistants Darvin Ham and Charles Lee, both reported finalists, are also Black.

The Wizards need a new coach — and a higher standard

Unseld would be the fifth Black man hired as a coach this offseason; the others are Chauncey Billups in Portland, Jason Kidd in Dallas, Ime Udoka in Boston and Jamahl Mosley in Orlando.

None of the coaching vacancies have gone to women, despite multiple organizations, including the Trail Blazers, reportedly interviewing longtime Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. Duke Coach Kara Lawson and Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon were also reportedly considered for jobs.

In his second stint in D.C., Unseld would again have to focus on remodeling a lackluster defense. Washington ranked 20th in the league this past season, and even that was an improvement after it finished 29th and 27th the previous two years.

He also would need to work with a roster that may be in flux after the 2021-22 campaign, should franchise cornerstone Bradley Beal choose to leave. Beal is under contract through the 2022-23 season but has a player option to terminate the deal in a year. His status affects the rest of the Wizards’ roster, including the team’s past two first-round picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija.

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