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JaVale McGee Isn’t Playing the Fool

Most of the center’s career has been played for laughs. But McGee has emerged from the depths of the bench in the NBA Finals to give the Warriors exactly what they need.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There are two versions of JaVale McGee that do not make sense together.

The first McGee is the one who just played a pivotal role in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. McGee went 6-for-6 from the field on five dunks and a hook shot. If the Cavaliers left McGee alone for even a split second, the Warriors got the ball to their enormous pogo stick, and he happily slammed it home. McGee called the game “the most fun I’ve had in basketball.”

The second McGee is the one responsible for a solid 40 percent of the world’s basketball blooper supply. If J.R. Smith’s Game 1 decision to run away from the basket in a tied game because he forgot the score was a basketball tragedy, McGee’s errors are lighthearted comedies. Because of these moments, it’s hard to even imagine a team considering putting McGee on the floor at the end of a Finals game.

Here’s JaVale trying to inbound a ball … from inbounds:

(McGee has also tried to inbound the ball for the wrong team.)

And here he is deciding to get back on defense while his team still has the ball, causing an entire NBA game to halt for a solid five seconds as he sheepishly returns to play:

Here he is attempting to enter a game while wearing warm-up pants:

Here he is taking a break from an active game to kiss a nice older lady in the front row:

McGee is not the first player to kiss a fan, but I believe he is the first to do so while the ball was in play.

I highly recommend this nine-minute supercut of every time McGee appeared on Shaquille O’Neal’s Inside the NBA blooper segment, “Shaqtin’ a Fool.” These segments aired once a week, but in this supercut, you will hear Shaq scream “JAVAAAALE MCGEEEEE” every 20 seconds as the rest of his cast erupts in glee anew. O’Neal mocked McGee so frequently that eventually the two began threatening each other on Twitter. This caused McGee’s mother, former WNBA player Pamela McGee, to say that TNT should fire O’Neal, and that O’Neal’s repeated insults of her son’s intelligence were an example of “straight-up black-on-black oppression” that could not be tolerated in the era of Donald Trump. I sincerely hope I never get roasted so hard for so many consecutive years that my mom gets interviewed about it.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr seems unsure whether to trust McGee. He has given McGee seven starts this postseason—and also eight DNP-CDs. After starting every game in Golden State’s opening-round win against the Spurs, McGee’s only minutes in the seven-game Western Conference finals against the Rockets came in garbage time of a 41-point blowout win. But when Kerr does call upon McGee, the mercurial big man has been stunningly consistent—and the thing that has made his game so hilarious in the past is actually part of why he’s so effective.

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The first thing you need to know is that McGee is enormous. He has the fourth-highest standing reach in the history of the NBA draft combine (114.5 inches, behind just Pavel Podkolzin, Mo Bamba, and Rudy Gobert), thanks to his 7-foot height and 90-inch wingspan. He’s also listed at 270 pounds, which, if true, makes him one of the 10 heaviest players in the league.

He’s stunningly agile for a man of his size. Most extremely large players struggle to move their gigantic frames, but McGee runs and jumps like a normal-sized person whose proportions were just scaled upward. When he puts his head down and sprints in the open floor, he blows by other centers. McGee is one of a few 7-footers ever to appear in the dunk contest, and had a spectacular showing, including one where he threw down two dunks on two rims in one leap:

If McGee were tall, fast, and coordinated, he would be an All-Star. But that would have been too much. O’Neal lumps all of McGee’s on-court blunders together, but there are really two distinct types of McGee high jinks: plays where his brain fails him, and plays where his body fails him. Sometimes he just trips and falls while attempting a routine post move. On multiple occasions, he has slammed full-speed into an opponent’s ass, accidentally riding his opponent like a pony or Ginuwine’s partner.

McGee is tall enough and fast enough that he might be able to dunk from the free throw line, but his two in-game attempts to do so both ended in spectacular catastrophes:

McGee is quick enough in the open floor to run a fast break, but is far too clumsy to do so successfully:

McGee’s unique blend of athletic traits sometimes gives him delusions of grandeur. His exceptional body gives him the confidence that he can do things that he simply cannot.

But Golden State does not need McGee to shoot for the moon. With two former MVPs and two more All-Stars in the starting lineup, the Warriors need a fifth player to fill a very limited role. With three all-world shooters (and, uh, Draymond Green) on the floor at any given time, they need some reverse spacing—a player who can just hang out near the basket should the defense overcommit to guarding their perimeter legends (or, uh, Draymond Green).

Kerr has been unsure who to give that fifth role to. Zaza Pachulia started 70 games last season and 57 this season, but virtually hasn’t played in the postseason. Kevon Looney didn’t really enter the rotation until January, but he has led Golden State’s centers in postseason minutes. Rookie Jordan Bell played some quality minutes at center as well. But with Andre Iguodala still sidelined, Kerr gave the Game 2 start to McGee, whose greatest attribute is the ability to take a pass from a teammate and shuttle it to the rim as quickly as possible—which is exactly what Golden State needs.

Look at this possession. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant play a two-man game that demands infinite attention—leaving none on McGee, who instantly shovels the ball into the hoop.

McGee is especially useful given Golden State’s current strategy of slipping screens to counteract Cleveland’s strategy of switching on screens. What the Warriors need is a player who, instead of actually setting a pick, can cut to the rim as quickly as possible, forcing a Cavaliers defender preparing to switch into a frenzied race to the rim. The very first play of Game 2 was set up for McGee to sprint full-bore toward the rim instead of setting a screen, and it got him an easy bucket.

Think about that: Curry, Durant, and Klay Thompson on the floor, and the first play of the game was a designed rim run for JaVale McGee. But he’s as good as anybody at running toward a rim.

Although McGee is known for his inconsistency, he’s actually dependable when the Warriors put him in a limited role. Last season, he led all players in postseason field goal percentage, shooting 73.2 percent, including a 7-for-7 game against the Trail Blazers. He began these playoffs with back-to-back games where he shot 5-for-7 against the Spurs. And Sunday night, he was a legitimate factor in the NBA Finals.

McGee is not the fool he’s been portrayed to be. He’s a human with a remarkable set of athletic gifts that happen to be quite difficult to control. By making sure McGee does the things he can actually do—and nothing else—the Warriors managed to bring out the best in him.

But yeah, he’s still uncoordinated enough to miss wide-open dunks sometimes.