Saved From Shaqtin': JaVale McGee Resurrecting Career With Warriors

Wednesday December 28th, 2016

This sequence was the exclamation point of nearly every explosive Golden State Warriors run last season: Stephen Curry slipping a pocket pass to Draymond Green, who lobbed a perfect ball for Andrew Bogut to tomahawk through the rim. The Warriors' bench would leap to their feet in unison as cheers from Oracle Arena crowded your League Pass stream.

A year later, the highlight features greater flare and acrobatics with the interminable JaVale McGee frequently finishing the haymaker. Green doesn’t even need to look at the rim before lofting the lob. With his Go-Go Gadget arms, McGee can stuff anything remotely close to the hoop. “I just know he’s gonna throw it and he doesn’t care about the turnover,” McGee told SI.com, twirling a strand of his beard as it stretched with his smile.

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McGee has good reason to beam. Mere months ago, the enigmatic 7-foot center totaled just 370 minutes as the Dallas Mavericks’ reclamation project. That 34-game attempt to form a frontline alongside Dirk Nowitzki in 2015–16 amounted his largest in-game sample size since 2012–13. McGee toiled on the sidelines during those three seasons in between, serving as an injured footnote, his impressive frame practically sapped of its athletic powers.

Now fully recovered, McGee has regained his pogo stick form. Just 28 years old, he still harbors the raw athleticism that terrorized the Lakers for seven games in the 2012 postseason, tallying double doubles and blocks en route to a four-year, $44 million contract. He trained in Los Angeles this off-season, preparing for a new chapter of his career while sporting a new look.

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Pamela McGee once shaved her son’s head during his youth. Impatience prevented him from growing his hair long enough for adventurous braids. High-top fades were simply out of the question, “because my hair just doesn’t work like that,” McGee explained. So while McGee trained for his basketball resurrection, he allowed the mop rooted at the back of his neck to sprout. “It started growing and so I started braiding it up,” he continued.

McGee’s glorious triple rattail was born. Shortly after, the Warriors called offering a training camp invite. “And then I went to San Francisco and found out that that’s just a hair style for people in the Bay,” he said. “It’s crazy that I already had it and then I got here and they were wearing it. So it was meant to be.”

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On-court, however, the initial fit was far from seamless. Experimenting with an augmented frontcourt rotation of Zaza Pachulia and David West, while also searching for organic time for Kevin Durant at power forward, Steve Kerr couldn’t conjure significant minutes for his most amiable big man. Pachulia’s early-December wrist injury allotted a true in-game audition, and McGee capitalized with rim runs and alley-oop finishes. With Pachulia back in the lineup, McGee’s play still demands opportunity, which Kerr has rewarded in the form of exhilarating four-minute spurts.

“He gives us a totally different look after we start with Zaza and obviously he’s that threat at the rim,” Kerr said. “He’s just kind of a burst of energy.” Kerr first experienced a three-man center-by-committee as a player in Chicago, when Phil Jackson shuffled Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, and Will Perdue during the Bulls’ 1994–95 campaign. Golden State’s triumvirat offers Kerr extraordinary flexibility. “We’ll spread them out and try to give different looks,” he said.   

McGee makes his living hovering in what teams call the “Dunker spot,” potentially potent real estate 10 to 12 feet away from the rim along the baselines. A whopping 90.7% of his attempts have come in the restricted area, where he’s shooting 68.4%, per NBA.com. He waits patiently on the balls of his feet, like a coil readying to spring and hammer those Green lobs or dump-off passes from guard penetration.

The role requires more dexterity than it appears. Duck in too soon and Andre Iguodala can’t weave his pass through the collapsing Pistons. Delay the cut too late, and he can risk yielding ample time for Aaron Baynes to recover and defend his shot. McGee mastered the timing during his apex in Denver. “It’s kind of second nature,” he said.

McGee is a gazelle in the open floor, ranking 20th in the NBA in transition points per possession, per Synergy Sports. “He’s probably the fastest big guy I’ve ever seen,” Kerr said. His beelines toward the rim create as great a gravitational pull on opponents as Curry scurrying off the ball, in turn cracking crevices in defenses for the Warriors’ shooters to locate and launch. “That really increases our spacing because teams have to respect that threat of the lob,” Kerr said. The Warriors’ patented drag screens that spark so many of their sets now induce even more fear with McGee setting the high pick.

Watch that again. If McGee can continually force teams to outright forget about Curry, Golden State has found paydirt. “That’s why he’s here,” Curry said. “He provides a lot of pressure on the rim when you get shooters around him.”

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. His current assist rate of 6.0% is double his career mark—it’s an objectively miniscule number. Although the Warriors don’t ask him to create for his teammates too often, when called upon, McGee has effectively fed shooters from the block. “That’s the main component of getting it in the post on this team,” he said.

And he’s whipped some absolutely gorgeous dimes to cutters as well.

“I’ve always been a good passer,” McGee said. “It’s when you get put in opportunities to do stuff, you make plays happen.”

Three-point shooting is also contagious in the Bay, and McGee, the owner of six career long-range attempts entering this season, has caught the bug, too. He drills triples after each Warriors practice. And proudly recites he shot 36% on 45 attempts during his two collegiate years at Nevada. “I’m very comfortable shooting the three,” he told SI.com, furrowing his brow as if the contrary was foolish.

For now, McGee is relishing his role. “What I do in the game is what I need to do in the game: catch alley-oops and run the floor,” he said. He offers, unprompted, that his unpredictable freelancing, bursting with unintentional comedy, is strictly reserved for garbage time. In his eighth year in the league, championship aspirations outweigh ancillary element. McGee no longer needs a spoonful of cinnamon to help the dunks throw down. 

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