That’s So JaVale: A Profile on the NBA’s Most Polarizing Player

Jacob Eisenberg profiles JaVale McGee, the NBA’s most electrifying and polarizing seven footer.

 For my money, the list of the three most entertaining players in the NBA begins like this:

1. Stephen Curry
2. LeBron James
3. JaVale McGee

Perhaps you think I’m being too generous, ranking McGee ahead of Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, or Chris Paul. Okay. Take four minutes out of your day to watch this. If you do not have the patience to watch the human highlight reel, take my word for it: watching JaVale McGee play is worth the price of admission.

If Kobe Bryant makes it look as if he is playing 2K13 on the court, JaVale McGee, on a good day, makes it look as if he is playing NBA Street. JaVale runsJaVale blocks, and most impressively, JaVale dunks. Oh, how JaVale dunks…

McGee’s mother was selected in the inaugural WNBA Draft. McGee’s father was selected in the same NBA Draft as Patrick Ewing in 1985. In theory, McGee is as genetically engineered for basketball superstardom as any of his predecessors.

His wingspan is longer than Yao Ming’s height; he can dunk three basketballs on one hoop at the same time; he has an alter ego who retweets all of his tweets; and when he is off the court, he cruises around Denver on his Segway wearing a thirty-dollar Elmo backpack.

Yet, for as impressive as he is at times, McGee is equally frustrating to watch when he lacks concentration. Frequently, McGee’s immaturity is transparent on the court. Last year, for example, McGee alley-ooped a ball to himself off the backboard and finished the dunk with a salute to the crowd – all while his team trailed by six points. Several games later, McGee volleyball swatted a clear goaltend deep into the crowd as if he were proud to concede the points for the sake of entertainment. McGee also spent the final three minutes of a game two seasons ago (all while his team trailed by double digits) to earn himself his first career triple-double. In classic JaVale fashion, McGee’s dunk to earn the triple-double also earned him a technical foul after he hung on the rim excessively in celebration. McGee’s mental gaffes on the court have been well documented. In fact, sports blog has a section on their website titled “That’s So JaVale” to consolidate all of McGee’s blunders on video in one place.

Regardless of these blunders, McGee can still take over a game positively with his athleticism. Moreover, in a sports world growing ever more dependent on newly discovered ways to analyze players statistically, McGee excels in nearly every metric category. Take Player Efficiency Rating (PER) as a prime example. This stat, discovered by ESPN’s John Hollinger, is considered the newest and most accurate statistic to identify an individual player’s value to his team. McGee, regardless of his whims defensively, McGee ranks ninth in the entire NBA ahead of the likes of superstars such as Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and early MVP candidate Zach Randolph.

JaVale McGee is the most polarizing player in the sport of basketball. Even Hollinger is hesitant to praise him for his impressive PER numbers, saying “(JaVale’s) performance proves a hole in the stats,” Hollinger remarked. “On the defensive end, we can only measure blocks, steals, and fouls. Those three things are only about twenty percent of the play on defense. The other eighty percent gets swept under the rug, and that eighty percent is where JaVale struggles.”

Because McGee tallies high block totals without fouling and scores on the offensive end with efficiency, McGee appears to be a great contributor on the court. However, Hollinger knows exactly why McGee is an outlier to the usually accurate stat, “The one thing that doesn’t show up in his ratings is that although he blocks a lot of shots, he also goes for a lot of blocks and takes himself out of position to rebound the ball.”

McGee disagrees with Hollinger’s assessment and believes a few immature mistakes have left an unfair lasting impact on his perception around the league. McGee is quick to defend his production defensively: “A lot of my defensive mistakes are more team mistakes than individual mistakes,” McGee said. “Still, because of my reputation, people seem to think everything that goes wrong is my fault.”

McGee’s mental mistakes on the court go hand in hand with his unparalleled athleticism. McGee remarked, “I just go by instinct. I am very athletic so I try to use my abilities to my advantage.” Sometimes, however, McGee overestimates his athleticism and skill as he occasionally turns the ball over as he attempts to enliven the crowd with a superhuman play.

Even though his instincts still get the best of him at times, McGee has made a concentrated effort to play within himself since his trade from the dormant Wizards to the upstart Nuggets. As McGee plays with more control, his value to the team increases in spite of his statistical decrease: “I jump at pump fakes less than I used to but stat-wise I am averaging less blocks here in Denver than I was in Washington.” By holding back on pursuing non-feasible blocks, McGee is starting to position himself defensively like the legitimate anchor that his team needs him to be.

While the stats are nice to have, McGee already earned a fat $44 Million contract over the summer and does not have to worry about looking impressive statistically for free agency any time soon.

Still, since gaining a reputation for being lazy and stat focused as a rookie, McGee has worked hard to change the perception. Even after being rewarded with a long-term contract last summer, McGee has stayed motivated and is working harder now than ever to improve. Nuggets’ leading scorer Danilo Gallinari complimented McGee’s work ethic: “JaVale is always in the gym working. He came back from working hard this summer and he now looks better than he ever has before.”

Even as McGee works hard to prove he is more than an athletic specimen, the unfortunate truth is that McGee will likely never be able to play a dominant 30+ minutes every night regardless of how much he progresses and how conditioned he stays.

That’s because in February of 2010, already well into his sophomore season in the NBA, McGee was diagnosed with asthma.

Benjamin Hochman, the Nuggets’ beat writer for the Denver Post shared that McGee’s affliction with asthma fluctuates on a game-by-game basis: “The asthma depends on the city. If he is playing on the east coast, they say the asthma gets terrible. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is apparently his Mecca. In regards to playing at home, Denver’s high altitude definitely affects him on occasion. So although he is obviously still a high-caliber athlete, when you are talking about McGee’s role on the team, you have to consider his asthma in the conversation.”

Regardless of the asthma, it is hard to ignore the excitement McGee brings to the arena when he plays. Last May, McGee showed glimpses of the dominant player he can become as he exploded off the bench for 21 points and 14 rebounds to utterly embarrass Andrew Bynum and the Lakers in the playoffs.

In a league in which the word “potential” gets thrown around too often, JaVale McGee is working hard to make sure he leaves none untapped. Gallinari sounds optimistic of McGee’s development, “JaVale is a guy who is helping us a lot right now,” he says. “I still think he can improve too. Hopefully he can help us even more in the future.”

McGee agrees with his teammate: “I am definitely still progressing.”

Be it on the highlight reel or on “Shaqtin-a-fool” it is likely that McGee’s best is yet to come.

Originally published on on 12/13/12

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