Denver Nuggets wing and Lake Clifton legend Will Barton says fellow Baltimore native Wes Unseld Jr., whom the Washington Wizards hired away from the Nuggets in July to be their next head coach, will bring leadership qualities as a player and person that will make it easy for players to rally around him.
The Unseld family is synonymous with basketball in Baltimore and D.C. Wes Unseld spent his entire 13-year career with the Bullets, playing in Baltimore from 1968-1973 and in Washington from 1973-1981. He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1988. His No. 41 hangs in the rafters at Capital One Arena.
Unseld, a 6-foot-7 center, averaged 10.8 points and 14 rebounds per game throughout his career and is known for his trademark outlet passes. He led the Bullets to the 1978 NBA championship, earning Finals MVP for his efforts. He won the league MVP award as a rookie in 1968-69, still one of just two players to accomplish the feat along with Wilt Chamberlain.
Unseld’s impact in Baltimore was felt well after he retired and will continue to be felt, even after his passing in 2020.
And now Wes Unseld Jr. will try to instill a winning culture in D.C. with the same franchise his father lifted to heights that have not been approached in 43 years. Unseld, 45, had been an assistant with the Nuggets since 2015. Barton, who has also been in Denver since 2015, says Unseld is just the man for the job with the Wizards.
Unseld is taking over a new-look Wizards squad — Russell Westbrook is out, while Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell are in — but it all still centers around Bradley Beal.
“They’re getting a great coach, man — not just a great coach but an even better human being, a guy that has morals and values,” Barton said on Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 27. “He’s going to do a lot of teaching there. A great leader, someone they’re going to get behind. It’s going to be easy for those guys to rally behind him.”
Unseld grew up in Catonsville, Md., and played ball at Loyola Blakefield and Johns Hopkins. He broke into the NBA in 1997 as a scout under his father, who was a top executive with Washington from 1996-2003. He remained a scout with the Wizards until 2005, when he was promoted to assistant coach, a role he held until 2011. He then worked as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors (2011-2012), Orlando Magic (2012-2015) and Nuggets (2015-2021).
Unseld’s work with the Nuggets has drawn the most acclaim. In 2014-15 — the season before current head coach Michael Malone and Unseld arrived in Denver — the Nuggets went 30-52. They’ve steadily improved since then, and they’ve won 62.5 percent of their regular-season games the past four seasons, with center Nikola Jokic leading the way.
Barton had a lot to do with that improvement as well — he’s averaged 14.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists with the Nuggets since 2015-16 — and so did Unseld.
“Wes is very important to our success and helping us turn everything around in Denver and helping us become one of the best teams in the league,” Barton said. “Wes ran our defense. He was the assistant right under Coach Malone. They’re getting a guy with a lot of experience that’s coming off a lot of success and I know he wants to win. They’re getting a great one.”
Barton signed a two-year, $32 million contract this summer to return to Denver. The Nuggets haven’t gotten over the hump in the playoffs yet, losing in the second round in 2019 and 2021 and losing in the conference finals in the bubble in 2020.
Though Jokic won MVP and played in every game during the 2020-21 season, injuries to other players robbed Denver of a chance to make a deep postseason run this summer. Jamal Murray suffered a torn ACL in April. Barton missed the end of the regular season and much of the playoffs with a hamstring strain. PJ Dozier missed the entire postseason with a right adductor strain.
The Nuggets haven’t won any championships in their history, and Barton wants to change that.
“It was very important for me to come back and finish what I started,” Barton said. “We’ve got a great group of guys there. We’ve got the MVP in Nikola Jokic. We’ve got a lot of great talent in our core group. I just felt like we had unfinished business. I felt like we were the best team in the league last year before the injuries happened. So I feel like if we come back and we have a healthy roster, we’ll be right there in contention to win it all. Winning the championship is very important to me.”
For more from Barton, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Jose Argueta/Washington Wizards