After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
We kick things off with Warriors Week, an in-depth look at one of the most interesting assemblages of basketball talent ever. We’ll have a different theme each week, as well as the usual league coverage. So check back often. Basketball never sleeps, and neither do we.
JaVale McGee is back. The man who launched a thousand memes is fighting for what could be his last chance in the NBA. And he’s not doing it for some mediocre team trying to stay in playoff contention (like his stint with the Mavericks last season), or a bottom-feeder trying to scratch together talent from the unlikeliest places (like his time with the Sixers before that). JaVale is in training camp for the Warriors. And the craziest part of it all is that he could actually help them.
First, a history lesson: JaVale was a first-round pick of the Wizards in 2008, part of a glorious youth movement that included Andray Blatche and Nick Young, and found mentors in Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson. The Wizards were part NBA team, part carnival, and no one personified that more than JaVale, a 7-foot dunking machine who had somehow gotten it in his head that he was a point guard. Nothing was out of bounds, and no shot or block attempt was too difficult to try. He was always trying to do too much, but on some level you had to admire the ambition. If he were as good as he thought, he would have been one of the best players in the history of the league.
His athletic gifts are remarkable. Watch his dunk contest performance from 2011. He dunked two balls into two different hoops at the same time, and then he dunked three balls into the same basket. And Blake Griffin won for jumping over a Kia? This doesn’t get talked about enough for the robbery that it was.
McGee had a brief moment of relevancy when he was traded to the Nuggets in 2012. He was the backup center on George Karl’s funhouse version of a pace-and-space team in the altitude of Denver, combining with Andre Miller to form one of the most mismatched alley-oop tandems imaginable. Things went south once Brian Shaw took over for Karl, who ran with the idea of turning JaVale and Kenneth Faried into low-post bruisers. The team fell apart, the locker room fractured, and a series of leg injuries threatened McGee’s career. The Nuggets traded him to the 76ers, who didn’t want him around their young big men. He wound up on the Mavs, where he couldn’t find consistent playing time under Rick Carlisle, a disciplinarian who could never get comfortable with McGee’s absentminded flights of fancy on the court.
Even in limited minutes with the Mavs last season, though, JaVale showed flashes. He had per-36-minute averages of 16.7 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks a game on 57.5 percent shooting. A player with a 7-foot-6 wingspan who can jump as high as JaVale is going to impact a game just by being present on the floor. Given how big, how long, and how fast he is, there’s no way he couldn’t.
It’s not hard to see how he could fit in with the Warriors. With Andrew Bogut gone, they don’t have anyone else on their roster who can block shots and roll to the rim. Zaza Pachulia, who McGee backed up in Dallas, is a strictly ground-bound player. Draymond Green is a great small-ball 5, but he can’t play the position full time. Anderson Varejão and David West are too old. James Michael McAdoo is too small. Damian Jones, their first-round pick from Vanderbilt, is injured. And Kevon Looney, their first-round pick from 2015, who didn’t play at all as a rookie, is more comfortable on the perimeter than in the paint.
The problem for JaVale is that all those guys have guaranteed contracts. There could be a roster crunch in Golden State, and a team that plays so much small ball may not want to devote more than half of its roster to traditional big men. He’s going to have to earn a spot in training camp, and an injury to a perimeter player over the next few weeks could force the Warriors’ hand in terms of who makes the team. There’s certainly no reason to believe in McGee based on his track record.
But when you hear him talking about blocking six shots in a scrimmage, including one of Kevin Durant’s, it makes you wonder. The potential might still be there, waiting to be unleashed. It sounds foolish to say about a 28-year-old who has played eight seasons in the NBA, but one of the oldest rules of thumb in basketball is that big men take longer to develop than guards. Sometimes, it takes until a player’s back is up against the wall for him to realize what he has to do stay in the league. Some guys don’t mature until they don’t have a choice. Some guys don’t mature at all. It remains to be seen which camp McGee falls into. I’m in the camp that likes to believe in people and give them second chances, and my suspicion is that Steve Kerr is in that camp, too.
JaVale is saying all the right things. “I block shots, rebound, catch alley-oops and run the floor. That’s what my niche is, and I’m trying to stick to that,” he told reporters on Tuesday. That’s all he has to do, and that’s all he has ever had to do. The Warriors need a 7-footer who can run, jump, and play above the rim; McGee needs another chance. This could actually happen.