Flight plan takes McGee into playoff contention with Nuggets

Athletic 7-footer will get two-month audition in Denver

Given the choice between a few extra hours of sleep or diving into a playoff race as soon as possible, JaVale McGee opted for the first flight to Colorado.

The newest 7-foot member of the Nuggets arrived in Denver on Friday after being part of Thursday’s three-team trade that sent longtime Nuggets forward Nene to the Washington Wizards.

Denver also received center Ronny Turiaf from Washington and a second-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Clippers, but the Nuggets plan to waive Turiaf to make room for restricted free-agent forward Wilson Chandler.

“We had two options for (McGee), which was to come on a 7 a.m. flight or a 3 p.m. flight, and he chose the 7 a.m. flight. That’s how excited the kid is,” Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said. “He knows it’s going to be a new start for him.”

A new start for McGee – an ultra-athletic 24-year-old center – meant the end of an era for Nene, who was in his 10th season with the Nuggets. He came to Denver in a draft-night trade in 2002 and built close relationships with Ujiri and coach George Karl.

“I have a lot of love for Nene,” Karl said. “I hope to be friends with Nene for a long, long time after basketball. His family’s been good to me. I can’t deny it was a very difficult conclusion.”

The Nuggets signed Nene to a multiyear contract on Dec. 14, but he missed 15 of the team’s first 38 games with foot and calf injuries and never found a rhythm. In 28 games, he averaged 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting .509 from the field.

Rookie forward Kenneth Faried emerged in Nene’s absence, allowing Denver to explore their options at the trade deadline.

“Masai said it personally that he believes in me and the team believes in me,” Faried said. “I’m going to try my hardest.”

With Faried and McGee in the frontcourt, the Nuggets might have the most athletic duo in the NBA.

McGee, 24, is averaging career highs of 11.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.46 blocks per game while shooting .535 from the field. He competed in the 2011 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, and was one of 22 players on the USA Basketball Men’s National Team mini-camp roster in 2009.

“I saw him with the USA team and I thought he was really impressive,” Karl said. “In general, I think we just feel going young and teaming him with Kenneth and some of the other younger guys is the best way to go forward in trying to be really good.”

McGee can become a restricted free agent on July 1, and the final 22 games of the season will serve as an audition. The Nuggets can evaluate how he fits their system, and they will have the right to match any offer he receives this summer.

“We felt that rather than doing something this summer, we wanted to see him for a couple of months on our roster and then we can really evaluate his talent,” Ujiri said. “I think if there is a year where you want to experiment a little bit, this is the year.”

As a shot-blocker who can protect the paint and run the floor, McGee would seem to be a great fit for Karl’s uptempo system. He gives Denver three young 7-footers, along with Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov, who were acquired in a three-team trade last spring.

“I’m excited about our guys,” Karl said. “We’re as good a young team as there is in the league. We’re in a position to see how good we can become in the next two months.

The Nuggets (24-20) now have 11 players younger than 27, and Chandler would make it an even dozen if he signs in the next few days. The versatile small forward has been working out in Denver for the past week and says he hopes to join the team in the next few days.

“It’s been tough sitting out and watching the games,” Chandler said. “I’ve enjoyed the process. Hopefully I can end it soon.”

While the NBA players and owners negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, Chandler played 32 games in the Chinese Basketball Association, averaging 26.6 points and 11.6 rebounds. He is an excellent defender who also would give the Nuggets another reliable scoring option as a starter or reserve.

“Whatever George needs me to do and asks me, I’m going to do that to the best of my abilities,” he said.

Chandler was in attendance for Thursday’s 103-90 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The trade seemed to weigh on the Nuggets, who led 51-50 at halftime but never recovered after being outscored 28-14 in the third quarter.

“It was tough,” Denver point guard Ty Lawson said. “That (trade) was like a shocker. The wow factor was crazy. We didn’t have a clue that was going down. It was crazy to come here and see (Nene’s) name not even there.”

The trade left Chris Andersen as the lone player remaining from Denver’s run to the 2009 Western Conference finals. Nene was a big part of that team, and Ujiri and team president Josh Kroenke thanked him for a decade of service.

“This is undoubtedly the hardest part of the business of basketball,” Kroenke said in a statement. “Nene has been one of the longest-tenured members of the Nuggets in franchise history. Our respect for him as a talented player and an exceptional human being cannot be overstated.

“He and his family have meant so much to this organization and the city of Denver. We want to thank them for their dedication to the Nuggets community on and off the court.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...