JaVale McGee poised to take center stage for Nuggets

Denver big man moves into starting role after offseason trade of Kosta Koufos
by Aaron Lopez

In an age of instant information and on-demand entertainment, it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting an immediate impact from young athletes.

Tim Connelly was director of player personnel for the Washington Wizards when they selected a 20-year-old center with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.

Connelly loved JaVale McGee’s potential as an athletic 7-footer who could run the floor, block shots and corral just about anything thrown within the vicinity of the rim.

There were plenty of highlights during McGee’s three-plus seasons with the Wizards, but they were accompanied by the expected growing pains common among young NBA players – big men, in particular.

McGee’s development continued after he was traded to the Denver Nuggets on March 15, 2012, but he was limited to a reserve role while playing behind starting center Kosta Koufos.

Ten days after the Nuggets hired Connelly as their new general manager/executive vice president, they put their faith in McGee by trading Koufos to the Memphis Grizzlies.

When he heard the news, McGee saw it as another growth opportunity.

“It was definitely a positive thing,” he said. “I was excited. It made me work harder.”

The early returns from training camp and two preseason games are promising. In his new role as Denver’s starting center, McGee averaged 13 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots in two games against the Los Angeles Lakers. He also made all eight of his free-throw attempts.

“From the years in D.C. to now, I see a more serious, more mature guy,” Connelly said. “With the realization of how young the league is now – and I’m certainly guilty of it – we want expedited maturation. Unfortunately with an NBA player, it doesn’t happen often. I see a guy that’s a little more aware of how serious he has to take the game.”

After working with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon in 2012, McGee focused on improving his low-post game and expanding his shooting range to 15 to 17 feet while training this summer.

His goals include reducing his turnovers, limiting his fouls and becoming more patient when he gets the ball at the elbow or in the paint. His training camp routine has included extended post-practice sessions with the coaching staff.

“It’s definitely a grind,” McGee said. “Come to the gym early, leave late. Now that I’m older, I feel like I’m taking it a lot more serious. It’s just all about preparation.”

McGee, who has long dealt with asthma, said his conditioning is better than it’s ever been, and he’s confident that he can handle playing 30 to 35 minutes a night.

His new coach, Brian Shaw, shares that confidence. He believes McGee can blossom in Denver the same way Roy Hibbert developed into an All-Star when Shaw was an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers.

“I’ll be in his ear constantly about the centers that I’ve been around,” Shaw said. “ I definitely think the sky is the limit for him and he’s at the age where things will start to slow down for him. He’s naturally maturing. His body has improved. He’s just taking a more serious approach from what I’ve seen this summer.”

McGee’s focus and determination certainly are positive signs as the Nuggets prepare for a successful fall, winter and spring.

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