I don’t have many McGee stories, but here’s one.
Last winter I was playing in a rec league at a high school about twenty minutes from D.C. On Sunday nights, after participating in any number of NFL-watching activities that would not be described as “performance enhancing,” we would take the court in chafing mesh jerseys, our shouts and clanked jumpers echoing all over the empty gym.
One evening, a few minutes before tip-off, JaVale McGee crept into the gym in a dark grey sweatsuit, the hood pulled up to shadow his face like the world’s most conspicuous ninja. There’s just no hiding when you’re 7-feet tall and move like a jungle cat, a lesson McGee must thoroughly understand at this point. We immediately spotted him, but attempted not to stare as he positioned himself on a ludicrously ill-proportioned loose chair in the corner of the gym, the seat so low as to bring his knees and shoulders almost level.
He was there to watch a friend, and a guy that might have been his trainer — both on our opposing team that night. His friend ostentatiously wore a Team USA practice jersey with McGee’s number. During the game, McGee mostly heckled his pals when they returned to the bench, and gave a brief shout when I caught the trainer with a crossover.
If you wondered what JaVale McGee was getting into on school nights during the season, there’s your answer.
Any time McGee is on the court, it doesn’t take long for your eye to begin tracking the simultaneously spastic and graceful movement of the tallest guy in the gym. His legend as a master of .GIF-worthy blooper is deserved, but he’s hardly a larger than life center on the lines of Dwight Howard. In the lockerroom it was Nick Young or even Andre Blatche who held court. I always found McGee surly and distrustful — he knew we were laughing.
And he didn’t like it, because McGee — and I genuinely believe this — wants to be good. In Washington, and given the deal they made to move him, I suspect that the Wizards feel the same way, I began to wonder whether McGee was fatally flawed — somehow as stunted mentally (in a basketball sense) as he was gifted physically.
It’s hard to believe that as McGee goes to Denver, a 24-year old with his size and coordination who ranks thirteenth in rebound rate and fourth in block percentage, could be considered something of a rescue project.
Yet a rescue project he is. How else to explain why after less than four years, the virtually expectation-free Wizards cut bait. But if there’s a coach and a team in the world that can help McGee capture a greater measure of his boundless potential, it’s George Karl and the Nuggets.
Let’s compare McGee’s former and future frontcourts. In Washington, McGee’s competition for minutes was the grotesque combination of Kevin Seraphin, Hamady N’Daiye and Ronny Turiaf. In other words, no competition at all.
But in Denver, McGee will have to fight for minutes. As Brett Koremenos, editor of NBAPlaybook.com, put it to me, “They don’t need him. Kenneth Faried and Al Harrington have the 4 locked down. Chris Anderson, Timofey Mozgov and Kostas Koufas, while not McGee, are adequate at the 5. So he will either learn to be a pro, or he won’t play very much. Love that.”
Me too. Especially because he’ll be incorporating himself into a healthy, defined culture with a savvy front office and young players that seem entirely committed to contending. As badly as John Wall wanted to win and tried to lead, McGee has never been a part of this kind of basketball culture. What’s more, McGee is now playing for a coach with a legendary history of getting the most from of his players.
When Shawn Kemp came to Karl, he was so raw he made McGee look like Louis Scola. In a few years, the Sonics were throwing it in to the Reign Man on the low block in the Western Conference Finals, and Kemp delivered.
Karl just has a way of putting his players in situations and “actions” that suit their talents, for encouraging the “right basketball play,” and for not accepting players who refuse to buy in.
The good news for McGee is that he only has to do less to become a much better player. If McGee’s game were an outfit, it would be replete with plastic tassels and flashing lights. Karl and his staff will help trim away the excess goofiness — snip off that running hook that takes a devastating offensive rebounder farther from the rim and is as unfoulable as it is unblockable.
Maybe the Wizards could have waited for McGee to grow into the franchise player look they envisioned when they paired him and Wall. Regardless, his experience with Denver will go a long ways to determining whether the still young player can develop some basketball sense. Whether he can grow up as a player.
It’s time for McGee to put on his big boy pants. The Nuggets are betting Karl can tailor McGee into a professional.