JaVale McGee and the Last Laugh

When most people think of the Golden State Warriors’ roster changes over the summer, they think of Kevin Durant signing a free-agent deal to join the team. They might even think of some combination of Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, or Leandro Barbosa; the key rotation players the Warriors had to shed to make room for Durant. What most people totally ignored was the splash signing of JaVale McGee to a training camp deal that turned into a role as the Warriors’ 15th man.

McGee is extraordinary in several ways. Other than having four capital letters in his name, he is 7ft tall with a wingspan of 7ft, 6.5 inches. In other words, the guy is a physical anomaly to the point that ESPN ran a Sports Science bit on him (that even features “the world’s highest cookie dunk”). His size is hardly surprising when you consider that his father was a 6’10” NBA draft pick in the 1980’s and his mother played in the WNBA.

That athleticism led him to be drafted by the Wizards with the 18th pick in the 2008 draft and then for the Nuggets to award him with a $44 million, four-year contract in 2012 after he averaged 11 points, 7.8 rebounds, and an absurd 2.16 blocks per game. McGee had established himself as a premier, young center with outrageous physical gifts. Yet only three years later, after a 2015 trade to the 76ers, McGee was waived.

What accounts for this turnaround? Mainly, McGee acquired (a fairly well-earned) reputation for making boneheaded plays and generally lacking the basketball IQ to match his athleticism. From trying to inbound the ball while he himself was still inbounds, to throwing an alley-oop to himself on a fast break when his team was losing, to sprinting back to play defense when his team had the ball, almost every game had at least one blatantly bad play by McGee. In fact, he became a regular feature on Shaquille O’Neal’s show Shaqtin’ a Fool, which mocks the week’s poor basketball plays. If you want to see a compilation of his appearances, look no further (feat. George Karl grimaces).

I think, however, that JaVale McGee has been ridiculed far too much and too often. While yes, his infamous blooper reels avail themselves to many a chuckle, he is not a terrible basketball player. Rather, his enormous physique and taste for the spectacular magnifies his errors.  McGee has only averaged one turnover per game over the course of his career, which, while not fantastic, is nowhere near as bad as one would expect. In addition, McGee is capable of plays like this (ignore the overused Roy Jones hype song in the background). In particular, keep an eye out for #1 where McGee absolutely bodies former Hoya Greg Monroe.

What you are left with when you strip away the jokes is a 7-footer with above average rim protection and speed signed to a veteran’s minimum contract. While McGee will likely continue to see limited minutes in the regular season (currently averaging 7 minutes per game), his presence could be just the change of pace the Warriors need to beat big teams in the playoffs. Just take a look at last Thursday against the Nuggets, where McGee put up 10 points in 15 minutes against a huge front line of Nikola Jokic (6’11”) and Jusuf Nurkic (7’0″).

So joke while you can, but don’t be surprised if McGee ends up being a key contributor to a Warriors’ championship run.

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