It was the 7th of December, 2012, when the Denver Nuggets played the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in what was their second of a five-game road stretch. With about 3:30 to go in the third quarter, and Denver up 67-64 against the Pacers, JaVale McGee found himself running with the ball up court off a Ty Lawson pass. The Denver big-man made a slick behind the back dribble to beat two Indiana players before lobbing the ball to Kenneth Faried for what was supposed to be a simple alley-oop, exclamation play at the other end.
Except that McGee’s pass didn’t quite reach anywhere near Faried, with the ball sailing well over the Pacers’ basket. McGee himself crashed into teammate Lawson at the end of the play, leading Denver coach George Karl to hang his head down with a familiar air of resignation that suggested “Oh well, yet another day in the life of JaVale McGee!”
Yes, that same day in McGee’s life, which also saw the talented center post 20 points while going 9-for-9 from the field and grabbing eight rebounds in Denver’s 92-89 win over the Pacers.
Absolutely and that’s what McGee’s five-season long journey in the NBA has been about.
Since being selected 18th overall by the Washington Wizards in the 2008 NBA draft, McGee has shown enough glimpses of his talent to suggest that he has the makings of a formidable center. His speed, athleticism and youth (will turn 25 on January 19) all work in his favour, but just like DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings talented center, McGee simply hasn’t fulfilled his potential.
Initially, it was proposed that the lack of a winning culture and the absence of veteran presence at Washington hadn’t allowed McGee to bloom into the talent he was supposed to be. So when he was traded to the Nuggets in March 2012 everyone hoped that with the experienced Karl around to groom him in Denver, McGee would finally deliver. Denver even awarded McGee a four-year, $44 million extension in the 2012 offseason, assuming that McGee would become Denver’s starting center, playing alongside Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
Ever since joining the Nuggets, McGee has started in just five games for the franchise while coming off the bench in 51 games. All 36 games that he has played this season for Denver have been in the role of a reserve, which has him playing 19.2 MPG while averaging 10.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG and 2.0 BPG. Meanwhile, Kosta Koufos, a far less talented center, who is averaging 7.7 PPG, 6.5RPG and 1.7 BPG this season, has taken the Nuggets starting spot.
All of which leads NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan to write, “So much of McGee’s career has been steeped in potential. His size and skill is tantalizing. Just trying to apply it all can drive a coach bananas. Which is part of the reason Karl has McGee coming off the bench and playing the fewest minutes he has since his second year in the league.”
At the same time, it’s difficult to completely dismiss McGee. On his night he is a formidable presence in the paint as the Lakers discovered in the first round of the 2012 Western Conference playoffs. In Games 3 and 5, which Denver won, McGee notched up a total of 37 points and 29 boards and it could be argued that had it not been for his 1-for-7 performance in Game 7, Denver may well have advanced ahead of the Lakers to the 2012 Western Conference semifinals.
What McGee has going for him is his attitude. Unlike Cousins, he does not court controversy willingly. He is happy to be winning in Denver, which is what a coach would want of a player even if he is coming off the bench. But unless McGee doesn’t start delivering on a more consistent basis, commensurate with his talent, even a positive attitude won’t find him much favour in the league.
But McGee surely knows that. After all, like that night in Indiana in early December last year, he has made the journey from highlight to blooper reel several times before!