Wizards‚Äô Wes Unseld Jr. unplugged: Spencer Dinwiddie is ‚Äėa dynamic fit‚Äô, new ways to use Bradley Beal and more
LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 10: Corey Kispert #24 of the Washington Wizards dribbles the ball during the game against the Sacramento Kings during the 2021 Las Vegas Summer League on August 10, 2021 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
Wes Unseld Jr. knows what a good screen action looks like. After all, he coached Nuggets stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic for half a decade.
Murray and Jokic have become particularly adept at the dribble handoff, a play when the star guard curves around the NBA‚Äôs reigning MVP to grab the rock from Jokic, who also acts simultaneously as a massive screener and basketball dispenser. Murray can shoot, drive or make a play for a teammate as the defense scrambles to stop him. If the league has a premier dribble-handoff combination, these two are it.
But there is an All-Star guard in Washington who thrives in dribble handoffs as much as anyone, and Unseld ‚ÄĒ who was an assistant in Denver from 2015 until this summer when the Wizards named him their head coach ‚ÄĒ sees parallels between the way his former stars ran dribble handoffs and the way Bradley Beal can in D.C.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a simple action, but you can get a lot of mileage out of it, especially late game,‚ÄĚ Unseld said in a conversation with The Athletic earlier this month at the Las Vegas Summer League. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve all seen it, and Denver has had a lot of success doing it. I will definitely use a lot of that, as well, because we know (the Wizards are) very efficient using that.‚ÄĚ
They‚Äôre abundant, too.
Beal has received more dribble handoffs than any player in the NBA during each of the past two seasons, according to information compiled by data-tracking site Second Spectrum and supplied to The Athletic. And he‚Äôs blown out the rest of the competition in that stat.
In 2019-20, he received 21.1 dribble handoffs per 100 possessions. The second-place finisher that season averaged only 13.6. This past season, Beal averaged 16.0 per 100. Second place was 13.8.
And who was the runner-up in both of those seasons? None other than Murray, each time.
‚ÄúNot to akin their individual talents, but I think that two-man combination is dynamic. When you have a guy who can score the ball like both of those guys (in Denver) can, it‚Äôs a tough thing to guard,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúAnd then you have to choose. Do I chase over (the screen)? Well, if you chase over, you‚Äôre creating a two-on-one. Somebody‚Äôs open. If you go under, both are capable shot-makers.‚ÄĚ
Beal has never scurried around more dribble handoffs than he did in 2019-20 when the Wizards instilled more motion into their offense than they had in previous seasons with John Wall out from the beginning of training camp. Unseld wants to reinforce those principles.
The reigning All-NBA guard has reached an expert level at using handoffs to head in every which direction. He‚Äôll curl around them. He‚Äôll approach a teammate as if he is about to grab the ball and drive downhill but instead will come to a stop and back cut his defender. Murray and Jokic do this beautifully, too.
The return of Thomas Bryant will matter for the Wizards too, even if they have a trio of capable centers.
As Unseld mentions, when both players in a dribble handoff can score ‚ÄĒ and especially, when both can shoot ‚ÄĒ it makes decisions far more difficult for defenses. Bryant will likely miss the beginning of the season as he recovers from the ACL rupture he suffered in January. Washington can scamper Beal around all kinds of screens in the meantime, considering he can run those actions with Montrezl Harrell, Daniel Gafford, Rui Hachimura and others. But when Bryant comes back, he‚Äôll add a new wrinkle.
He is the one Wizards center who shoots 3s. And he does it quite well; he‚Äôs at a 41 percent clip over the past two seasons. He can pull a handoff back, take a dribble into the paint and finish around the hoop. He and Beal already have chemistry together.
The Wizards‚Äô new coach knows something about this kind of offense. Maybe he can teach his new squad a subtlety or two he learned in Denver.
Unseld touched on several more topics during his conversation with The Athletic, which followed a summer-league practice in Las Vegas.
‚ÄėA dynamic fit‚Äô
Unseld called new point guard Spencer Dinwiddie ‚Äúa dynamic fit‚ÄĚ next to Beal.
‚ÄúOn paper, it‚Äôs one of the most dynamic 1-2s, 2-1s, however you wanna call it, on the East Coast,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúSo, I‚Äôm excited to have both those guys. I think they‚Äôre about the right thing. I think they‚Äôre gonna play together, make us better. Honestly, the way they can score the ball, they‚Äôre gonna bail us out of a lot of tough spots.‚ÄĚ
The addition of Dinwiddie ‚ÄĒ who signed a three-year, $62 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal to Washington ‚ÄĒ is one of many changes to the roster since the last time Unseld spoke with reporters about his vision for the upcoming season.
The trade that brought Dinwiddie to D.C. and sent Russell Westbrook to Los Angeles also included four more players coming to the Wizards: Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Harrell and Aaron Holiday. The personnel is not the same as it was heading into draft night.
‚ÄúOn a macro level, (changes to the team) don‚Äôt change our overall philosophy when it comes to spacing, playing with pace, shots, as far as what we value,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúThat doesn‚Äôt change. I think you‚Äôve got to shift your gears as far as some of the nuanced things you run. ‚Ä¶ I think as coaches, we all steal from each other, so there are gonna be some things that are very similar-looking to what you‚Äôre accustomed to.‚ÄĚ
Dinwiddie is, of course, the big fish of the summer. He missed nearly all of last season with an ACL injury but averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists in 2019-20. He‚Äôs been one of the league‚Äôs top guards at getting to the line, a trait that will work well next to Beal, who shares the same strength.
Beal, for example, had a 33 percent free-throw rate (free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) last season. Dinwiddie had a 44 percent rate in his most recent healthy season. To put that in perspective, only two qualifying starting backcourts around the NBA last season boasted a couple of guards with individual free-throw rates above 30 percent. One of them was Beal and Westbrook.
(I could give you 30 guesses, one for each team in the league, and you still may not get the other backcourt. It‚Äôs the Timberwolves‚Äô Ricky Rubio and Josh Okogie, who posts elite free-throw rates every season partly because he rarely ever shoots and partly because a defender trying to stop his drive is like a cat trying to stop a bowling ball.)
Beal, though, has played with a free-throw glutton before ‚ÄĒ just last season. And this time, he‚Äôll have more shooting around him with the additions of Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, first-round pick Corey Kispert and an eventually healthy Bryant, which will theoretically open up more driving lanes.
‚ÄúIt gives you a different dynamic,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúObviously, you have two dynamic guards who can score at will, so I think it gives us a lot of flexibility on offense.‚ÄĚ
What to do with the rotation?
Unseld has a problem any coach would appreciate: some player, at any given moment, might feel like he deserves more playing time than he‚Äôs receiving. The Wizards are deep. And their new coach will have to carve out a rotation inside a roster filled with forwards and big men.
Particularly intriguing will be what route Unseld chooses once Bryant returns from his ACL injury. The Wizards have three centers: Bryant, Harrell and Gafford, the projected opening-day starter. Each could justify consistent playing time.
‚ÄúI made this point to those guys when I spoke to them. All of that is great, but all of our decisions are gonna be based on what‚Äôs best for the group,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúI may at times ask somebody to sacrifice a little bit for the betterment of the group. There‚Äôs times when I may ask (them) to do more. And I think that‚Äôs a fair way to look at it, and I think it‚Äôs just one of our pillars. It‚Äôs about us. It‚Äôs about ‚Äėwe,‚Äô not ‚Äėme.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
The Wizards are stacked with forwards, too. Kuzma, 2019 first-rounder Hachimura, 2020 first-rounder Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans and Anthony Gill are all conventional forwards, and more players could receive time at the three or the four, as well.
‚ÄúThat gives you more flexibility,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúIt allows you to play big at times. It allows you to downsize.‚ÄĚ
He also says Hachimura could play center at times and likes Kuzma as both a three and four. Unseld believes Caldwell-Pope, a 3-and-D threat who can play the three but more consistently defends guards, has shown he can guard big wings in moments.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know if doing it on a full-time basis is fair, but there are gonna be some nights we‚Äôre gonna have to ask him to do that,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúJust like anyone else, we‚Äôre gonna have to ask him to do some things that maybe are out of their box, and we‚Äôll find things schematically to help manage that.‚ÄĚ
Unseld calls Kuzma ‚Äúa weapon‚ÄĚ for the way he can shoot and play at multiple positions.
‚ÄúWhether you wanna call him a two, three or four, he‚Äôs gonna be out there. He‚Äôs gonna space the floor. He‚Äôs gonna make shots,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúI think the game has moved away from the standard point guard, two-guard, small forward, etc. I think you wanna put your best matchups out there.‚ÄĚ
Of course, there is one name missing from this list: Kispert, the sharpshooter who the Wizards selected with the No. 15 pick in the NBA Draft last month.
The team is loaded up with competent players. It‚Äôs difficult to imagine Dinwiddie, Beal, Caldwell-Pope, Hachimura, Gafford, Kuzma, Bertans, Avdija, Harrell or Raul Neto out of the rotation heading into the fall. Well, that‚Äôs 10 players. A healthy Bryant would be another possible contributor. And Holiday still could fit in somewhere.
So, where does Kispert fall? And will he play right away?
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know. I never wanna paint myself into a corner, commit to something I‚Äôm uncertain of, but I think he has a good chance to be impactful,‚ÄĚ Unseld said. ‚ÄúI said at draft night, he‚Äôs got a discernible NBA talent. His maturity, the fact that he‚Äôs played four years at a high level for a great coach ‚ÄĒ he‚Äôs disciplined. He understands his strengths. He‚Äôs gonna play to his strengths. And his ability to stretch the defense is a premium in the league.‚ÄĚ
This group‚Äôs dynamic is almost entirely new.
Westbrook wasn‚Äôt just a fixture on the court last season. He also was the loudest voice in the locker room. Now, he‚Äôs gone ‚ÄĒ as is most of the coaching staff, including most assistants and Scott Brooks, the team‚Äôs head coach for the previous five seasons. Well-respected veterans, like Robin Lopez and Ish Smith, have gone to Orlando and Charlotte, respectively.
Maybe even more striking than all the basketball changes in Washington are the personality ones.
‚ÄúIt takes time,‚ÄĚ Unseld said when asked for his philosophies in building chemistry inside an environment that will present something new for everyone. ‚ÄúI think the most important thing is being able to have that organic relationship build slowly. You have to take those unscripted moments to just spend time, whether it‚Äôs on the floor with players.
‚ÄúObviously, we had an opportunity to kinda bond a little the last few days (in Las Vegas), grab some meals. I think that those are great moments to kind of figure each other out. The sooner we can do that, I think it allows us to exude our strengths. They can understand how we wanna teach, how we‚Äôre speaking the same language. I think that transitions into your group. The sooner that happens, the chemistry now develops.‚ÄĚ