Either way, his intense attention to detail is part of why the Washington Wizards’ brass liked him enough to give him the top job this summer.
At the team’s first day of training camp Tuesday, Unseld had six pages of typed checklists to get through — not timetables governing each hour of each day but more like targets to cross off. Three pages for offense, three pages for defense. Most importantly, the lists are living things, with Unseld expecting to add tasks throughout the week and to take longer to check off some. He’s prepared to adapt.
But the first order of business Tuesday was nonnegotiable. The defensive checklist took priority.
“Today was an awesome day,” a notably upbeat Bradley Beal said. “It was very electric, excited and energetic from start to finish, very attentive to detail. Coach Wes has a strong voice about himself. He can very much control the room, which is very impressive, just his principles, and he’s very defensive oriented. Our whole first practice today was strictly defense, so he’s very much setting the tone for how we need to be and what our focus needs to be on.”
Beal’s palpable thrill at spending an entire morning session on defense is understandable after the 28-year-old led a team whose defensive rating was 20th in the league last year.
Unseld — who likes to remind that, yes, he gets credit for turning around Denver’s defense as an assistant (the Nuggets’ defensive standing last season was an enviable 11th), but he still considers himself an all-around coach — kept things simple.
The Wizards focused on pick-and-roll defense and transition defense, drilling down on defensive vocabulary and generally learning how their new coach approaches the gritty end of the court. To Unseld, defense is primarily a mind-set.
“It’s not just one person — this has got to be a part of who we are, what we are, daily,” Unseld said last week. “And I think that if we lay the foundation, guys buy in. You’ll start seeing the benefit of that.”
The Wizards preached accountability on defense constantly toward the latter half of last season, carping after nearly every game that the issue was players weren’t stepping up and taking pride in guarding their man.
Unseld is hoping to get ahead of that this year, in part, Beal said, by cutting down on Washington’s defensive switching.
“He’s very adamant on principles, being accountable for your man, being accountable for being a help man and trusting that your team will have your back. So there are times we will switch. But we won’t do a lot of that this year,” Beal said. “. . . One of the quotes [Unseld] said is, ‘Know you have help but don’t depend on your help.’ You know, guard your man, understand that your teammate has your back, but your main objective is to keep the ball in front of you. So, I mean, these are the same things you hear before. But he’s emphasizing them constantly.”
Communication has been a point of emphasis as well, especially with 11 of the 20 players at training camp being new faces. Beal, the franchise cornerstone, has always led by example even as he has grown more vocal over the years.
Former Lakers Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — skilled defenders who bring knowledge of what it takes to win a championship — each said Monday that a goal this season is to become a vocal leader.
“On the court, sometimes we’re mute; sometimes you don’t hear us,” Beal said. “Sometimes you get too cool to talk, you know. You can’t be too cool to talk on defense. . . . You have to be loud, and it has to be often.”
Communication, accountability and defensive effort will be season-long targets for the Wizards, not first-day blips. Unseld said the team got through all of the items on his to-do list for the morning, but Washington’s new coach is as measured as he is meticulous.
He knows a first practice can be promising and perhaps nothing more.
“The challenge is, you know, was there retention? If we can retain it, come back this evening and apply some of those things, I think that’s the biggest hurdle,” Unseld said, “[to] have carry-over from practice to practice and obviously down the line game to game. But time will tell right now. You feel pretty good because, first day of practice, there’s a lot of energy in the gym. Guys are talking to communicate, communicating at a high level. All in all, I’m pleased with how this morning went. We’ll see this afternoon. And I’m certainly looking forward to some of that carry-over.”