Wes Unseld Jr., one of several Black first-year coaches, is already giving Wizards playoff aspirations

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — There are 12 teams in non-play-in playoff positioning and only one has a new head coach: Wes Unseld Jr.’s Washington Wizards, who snapped a three-game losing streak Wednesday night in overtime against a pesky Detroit Pistons squad.

Unseld Jr. is one of several new coaches on the sideline this season and, arguably, could be the most mild, soft-spoken of them all. It’s a sharp contrast to a couple scenes from Wednesday night, when a few of his players were barking at the young Pistons, both teams desperately eyeing a win.

The result, following a Kyle Kuzma corner three with .06 seconds remaining, was a 15-11 mark for the surprising Wizards, tied with the Miami Heat for fourth in the East. Better than Philadelphia and Atlanta, better than Boston and Cleveland, and a game behind the champion Milwaukee Bucks, who sit third.

He sighed following his media session, saying, “Sometimes you’re happy to get a win, most times you’re relieved.”

This one was the latter.

“I’ve been around for a lot of years and worked for a lot of coaches, but until you’re actually in that seat, having to go through the day-to-day, you think you know, but it’s so much more,” Unseld Jr. told Yahoo Sports following the team’s morning shootaround. “It’s a blessing to be in this spot. I don’t take this responsibility lightly.”

Being the son of the late Wes Unseld presents a level of visceral familiarity and legacy, but the Wizards have not performed like a legacy franchise in the modern NBA. He had to install a defensive philosophy for a team that didn’t have much of an identity last season.

His inherited star player, Bradley Beal, made waves on media day when discussing vaccines, and his scoring efficiency is down to its lowest mark in years.

But Washington is winning.

Spencer Dinwiddie, the Wizards’ third point guard in three years, is coming off a partial ACL tear and resisted suggestions from the organization to wait 15 games before his debut.

And of course, the Wizards acquired Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the trade for Russell Westbrook.

So it doesn’t seem like it would’ve been a good mix, demanding a new level of accountability on the floor when there’s no connective tissue to build on. But his “treat them like grown men” approach has proven to be steady thus far.

Until their recent slide, the Wizards were a top-10 defense, something that belied their personnel, and they generally haven’t beat themselves — a mark of good coaching.

Washington Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. points during a game.
Washington Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has his team in playoff position a quarter of the way into his first season at the helm. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

He called for Dinwiddie to be more aggressive in running the offense recently, more a subtle prod than calling out his players — and it’s been respected.

“You can be stern and set certain guidelines without yelling and screaming,” Unseld Jr. told Yahoo Sports. “They’re gonna allow me to coach them or they’re not. It’s not me imposing my will. We’re pulling on the same rope, so there’s buy-in. It’s not always gonna be perfect.”

So much attention was placed on the NBA as a whole during this coaching cycle. The number of Black American coaches had dwindled to an embarrassing amount, and Unseld Jr., Jamahl Mosley, Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Willie Green and Ime Udoka dramatically upped the output.

“It’s been more of an emphasis and shows progression. The NBA is the most progressive league of the major sports,” Unseld Jr. told Yahoo Sports. “There’s more work to do, but I think the inclusion, diversity with women, people of color, sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter. They’re trying to prop up the best people to do the job.”

He’d gone through the interview process before, with some around the league feeling he had a job wrapped up while his Denver Nuggets were in the bubble before a team owner stepped in to go in another direction.

“You have those interviews and each one gets subtly easier, you get more accustomed,” Unseld Jr. told Yahoo Sports. “Of course it is [stressful]. The fact I was able to break through is terrific, but I don’t think you can get discouraged because there’s only so many opportunities. It worked out, and I couldn’t ask for a better spot.”

All but Kidd are first-time head coaches, a position the Pistons' Dwane Casey knew full well from the other side. Casey’s first experience prompted him to apologize to Kevin Garnett for “not knowing what he didn’t know.”

At the time, Casey was 48, thrust into the position for a Timberwolves franchise in flux and trying to figure out how to maximize the remainder of Garnett’s prime. After a 33-49 season in 2005-06, he was fired 40 games into the next season when Minnesota was 20-20.

Casey went to Dallas as an assistant alongside Rick Carlisle then landed in Toronto before the 2011-12 season.

“I’m apologizing to you right now for what I didn’t know when I had my first coaching job,” Casey said, recalling the conversation with Garnett. “No matter, minority, whatever coach you are, it’s tough because there’s so much you don’t know or can’t anticipate.

“As you get older in the league, you anticipate the questions [from media], anticipate the attitudes, the moods of the team, anticipate what’s gonna happen in the game. Those things come through experience, just like players. I think [Wes is] doing a heck of a job.”

When told of Casey’s comments, he agreed about learning on the fly.

“It’s hard because some of that dynamic is different,” Unseld Jr. told Yahoo Sports. “You have to do it as an assistant, but, you know, you don't have to do it on a macro scale. It's not just managing players, it's managing volume of staff.”

More CEO than anything, but he seems ready for the uncharted terrain.

“It's probably the most eye-opening thing about the position,” Unseld Jr. said. “And I’ve said to our guys, we're gonna have to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. It's not personal, you might not always like some of the things we have to share, but we have to be transparent and up front about it. I think that's the most important thing. We’re all on the same page.”

It’s not many times we’ve been able to say that about the Washington Wizards, so he’s already crossed one important checkpoint.