Film Room: JaVale McGee’s improving defense

During his days on the Washington Wizards, JaVale McGee became tragi-comically famous among NBA fans, known much better for his gaffe-packed blooper reels on YouTube than for the actual quality of basketball player he was. With frequent assists from Shaquille O’Neal’s “Shaqtin’ a Fool” segment on TNT, and the spread of the “That’s so JaVale!” meme, McGee’s many bizarre, head scratching blunders went viral, and the “knucklehead” label stuck so hard that he’s still trying to shake it off.

But he is in fact making progress, and many around the league – including Shaq – are starting to take notice that there’s more to JaVale than just being the NBA’s court jester.

Which is not to say he’s all the way there yet. He continues to be mistake-prone at times. There remains plenty of room for improvement with his fundamentals, and with harnessing his raw, too often unfocused talent into a more controlled style of play with better decision making.

This was all too clear at the beginning of the 2012-13 season. Although McGee had for the most part eliminated the cartoonishly buffoonish mistakes that earned him infamy in Washington, he was still playing out of control much of the time. He had yet to get any sort of handle on the post moves he had studied under Hakeem Olajuwon’s tutelage the previous summer. And on defense, he often got caught out of position, easily duped by head or pump fakes, and seemingly confused in general.

Over the course of the season, however, JaVale has been on a course of measured but steady improvement in these areas. He has learned to show restraint more often in his post play decision making. He still bites on fakes too frequently, but he is doing a better job of keeping his feet on the ground than ever before. And he seems to have expanded his defensive awareness beyond the narrow channel of just swatting at everything that moves to actually manning up on his assignment more often, and being more communicative on defense with his teammates.

On Feb. 25 versus the Los Angeles Lakers, McGee played what arguably was his best defensive game of the season – if not his career. It stood out as a signpost marking the progress he has made on improving his defense. And despite the fact that Dwight Howard’s performance has dropped off considerably this season, it was encouraging to see McGee take it straight to him defensively, and get the better of him more often than might be expected.

In the Roundball Mining Company Film Room today, we take a look at most of McGee’s defensive plays from that game. Some are more in the mold of “traditional JaVale” – opportunistically blocking a shot. One is an error, included for balance, that shows that he still has a tendency to get tricked into jumping sometimes. But many of these plays feature some very sound, heady, and even gritty defensive moves that could seldom be seen before this year.

So the larger point is that if we were to cut clips from McGee’s best defensive game from last November, or last season, it would have been impossible to compile a video such as this one with so many good plays. He is inconsistent, and there have been (and will continue to be) many bumps on the road as he works to improve. But as many Nuggets have have already noticed, and we will see here, he is, in fact, getting better.

Analysis of each clip follows the video.


Clip 1 – McGee does a good job of getting back in transition quickly on this play, and gets himself in a good position to swat the ball away, creating a fast break opportunity for Denver the other way. JaVale often gets a lot of heat for some of his weaknesses such as failing to block out well enough, jumping on fakes and the like. And that criticism is merited. But it should likewise be recognized that one thing he does right defensively with consistency is running the floor to get back in transition. This not only helps prevent easy baskets by their opponents, it also creates a lot of fast break opportunities for Denver.

Clip 2 – This one is fairly self explanatory. Classic JaVale going for the block as the help defender, leading to more fast break points for the Nuggets.

Clip 3 – McGee gets switched onto Steve Blake. He tries to stay with him, but Blake has the quickness to drive past towards the basket. The key thing about this play is that JaVale doesn’t give up on it, instead staying with the play to challenge it at the rim. The goaltending call seems questionable at best to me. I will leave it to you to decide whether it was a legal block or not. But the takeaway here, in my opinion, is that chasing down the play like that is a positive, even if in this case the result didn’t go Denver’s way.

Clip 4 – Somewhat of the traditional JaVale here as well, but what I really like about this play is his vision and awareness. It’s pretty clear that from the moment Antawn Jamison receives the ball, McGee correctly reads exactly how the play is about to unfold, and immediately heads to the basket to put an end to it.

Clip 5 – Another questionable goaltend call dumps some cold water on what otherwise was a very solid play by McGee. Once again he gets back quickly in transition, and gets himself positioned in front of Jamison to challenge the shot at the rim. And once again the result was a negative for the Nuggets (though it’s doubtful it should have been), but JaVale’s running and positioning, like how he stayed with the play in Clip 3, are positives in terms of his development as a defender. These are all good defensive habits for him to cultivate and establish consistently.

Clip 6 – McGee is improving, but we’re not out of the woods yet. He’s still sometimes too eager to go for the big play instead of the more fundamentally sound play, and when he gets caught up in the action, he can be a bit too excitable. I included this clip for balance, to show that he still has a ways to go. But what’s important to remember is that it was not too long ago when most of JaVale’s games would feature many more of these.

Clip 7 – This play is essentially the opposite of Clip 6. McGee does everything right here even though Kobe Bryant clearly has the advantage when he gets switched onto him. Kobe attempts to drive by, but JaVale does a good job of staying in front of him. Not only that, he trusts his help defenders in Corey Brewer to keep Kobe pinned in the lane, and in Jordan Hamilton to get his back at the rim. He stays on his feet and shows some great patience in waiting for the perfect opportunity to time his block correctly. It is still somewhat rare to see McGee playing with this kind of defensive maturity and completeness. But the fact that he has demonstrated the ability to do it, and that it’s happening more often, is great news for his development.

Clip 8 – I’m not sure that the way JaVale positions himself in this play is something I’d want to see him do too much when he’s covering a player like Dwight, and I’m really sure it’s something I’d never like to see from shorter frontcourt players like Kenneth Faried. More often than not, it would be preferable to position himself inside, attempting to deny Howard position near the rim, and defending him straight up (as he does in Clip 9). But this is one of those situations where McGee’s freakish length and athleticism come into play. Against a lot of players in the league, if Dwight had the inside position so close to the basket as he does here, Steve Nash would likely take the opportunity to lob it over the defender for an easy alley-oop. With JaVale defending him, however, that’s not really an option, and Nash attempts a very un-Nash-like soft entry pass instead, and McGee is easily able to swat it away. A play like this is a good sign that McGee is developing better awareness of how to use his physical attributes in smarter ways to expand his defensive skill set.

Clip 9 – This is the JaVale McGee Nuggets fans should dream of seeing more regularly in the not-too-distant future. Controlled. Patient. Tough. Staying on his feet, and keeping Dwight away from the rim. Mentally ready to go for the block, but letting the chance come to him rather than forcing the issue. Just a beautiful, perfectly executed defensive play from start to finish.


The more we see of what McGee is truly capable of, the more frustrating it will become when he doesn’t deliver. So much of what makes or breaks the quality of his defensive play seems to be about mental focus. The effort is nearly always there; that’s not a problem.

It is difficult to unlearn bad habits, and when the Nuggets coaching staff took on the challenge of undoing the nearly four years of damage that was done to McGee’s game in Washington, and setting him on a course for better fundamentals and a more controlled, well-rounded style of play, nobody should have expected things to get better overnight.

And it has taken – is taking – some time. But if JaVale’s pace of development continues as it has this season, or perhaps even accelerates as he becomes more comfortable with his new, better habits and more disabused of his bad, old ones, then it will be huge for the Nuggets.

“Dominant” is not a word often used to describe JaVale McGee, but if he can find his way to defending at the higher level he has shown himself to be capable of, that may well change in the future. And if that happens, the Nuggets will be one step closer to reaching that next tier and becoming a legitimate contender.


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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • http://espn herpderpnuggets

    that antwan jamison goaltend pissed me off so much..i hope javale can play like that every game though

  • theo

    Agreed. Obviously better than last year and earlier this year. And you’re exactly right about the effort issue–he’s not a lazy player at all, just lacks focus and most important positioning and court awareness. With his frame and crazy length–including the ridiculous wingspan–the guy doesn’t even need to jump to be a great defender. If he’s just in the right spot on the floor and uses good fundamental foot work he’s gonna shut down almost anything in the vicinity. In my mind his offensive game is pretty irrelevant to his potential impact for the Nugs. How good would we be with a fundamentally sound big that could regularly erase many of the worst results of our gambling/switching style of D? I thought time much better spent with the Dream would have been working on defensive footwork and positioning. Hopefully that will be on the agenda for this summer.

  • magster

    Wish he was more consistent. His first half last night was pretty darn bad.

  • Scott

    The thing I like is that maybe his hooks and post shots aren’t falling, but he’s making an actual attempt to improve where it matters most, in games.

    Once he develops a decent post game and better defensive positioning, look out nba…

  • EWilson

    And, if he becomes more consistant with the fundamentals of defense, he’s going to get the benefit of the doubt on more of those marginal goaltend situations. When you look like you’re chasing the play, then the refs can call the goaltend. When you’re consistantly in the correct defensive position, they’re going to give you the block more often.

  • EWilson

    Plus, being in better position defensively should help boost his rebound numbers, which is also important.

  • Tom2

    He’ll never be like Dream, but it’d be nice if he became like Mutombo.

  • heykyleinsf

    Awesome work guys!
    no doubt his physical gifts cause reason
    for optimism.. seems like he’s developing
    and maturing in many different ways..
    …even with the faux autograph..

    I’m on board..
    I can imagine a domination in the middle
    like we haven’t ever seen before in a Nugs uni…

    Mutumbo and Issel were legends..
    but McGee.. he will give us highlights for years..
    there will be lowlights as well..
    but fewer and further between.

    Nice job with this one.

  • Zeb

    One thing you don’t mention–the value of McGee getting bocks is multiplied when you see how many turn into fast breaks for Denver. Those are 4 point swings and they can really make a difference in a game.

  • Ernie

    Joel, thanks very much for the work. That was excellent.

    My problem with McGee’s defense is that he keeps his arms down when defending. With his length if he keeps his hands up and active active not only will blocks come easier (because there is less time to get them to the proper point) and with more control but so will steals and deflections.

    I also think with the exception of some games against the Lakers he doesn’t love to go get rebounds, and he could be a dominant rebounder with more effort. Faried doesn’t explain this lack of rebounding because GK for the most part does not like playing them together.

  • Cephus

    Ditto t.y. for 411 ! Javale’s play has me either scratching or slapping my head in alternate awe and frustration. I’ve never overtly blasted him on comment board, because at the core of things, I thought he was trying and overall improving. This clip cements that impression & I thank you for taking the trouble to produce it.

  • Legalize Denver Nuggets

    Man! Can’t believe I missed watching that game! Great compilation and analysis. Javale is such a unique asset for this team. Big men take time to develop and if he can keep near this trajectory of improvement we will be reaping the rewards of that patience in a couple of seasons. Well I mean even more so than we are now. Because I’m definitely glad he’s currently on the team as well.

  • DH

    Great analysis, Joel. And great comments everyone. Since JaVale’s defense was covered so well, I want to mention his offense. I might be in the minority, but I see him being a guy who commands a double-team, eventually. It seems to me that his “moves” are improving (sweeping 12-foot hook shots aside), but that he rushes everything. If he starts to develop some patience on the offensive end, like he’s starting to on the defensive end, I think he could be quite a weapon. That said, I agree with theo that he should have concentrated on defense during the offseason, as that should always be his first priority.

    • Joel

      Thank you, and everyone above, for the kind words. This was one of my most enjoyable posts/videos to do so far, so I’m glad people are enjoying it.

      I don’t disagree with defense being a higher priority for JaVale. But I do think it’s worth throwing out there that maybe if you get a chance to train with Hakeem, you say yes first and ask questions later. I think it was a great move by the Nuggets organization to do that, especially considering that when he was with the Wizards he asked Ernie Grunfeld for a big man coach and was told he could have one — if he paid for it himself. In his first offseason with the Nuggets, they sent him the exact opposite message — not only will we pay for it, but we’re sending you to the freakin’ DREAM, dude. It’s a vote of confidence on the higher order of putting their money where their mouth is. And it’s the perfect message to send to a developing player: We are serious and committed about maximizing your potential. Regardless of what specific aspect of his game he’s focusing on, creating that kind of positive atmosphere to reverse the crapfest he went through in Washington is important in its own right.

      • DH

        Point taken, especially if the Nuggets felt like the opportunity might not come around again.

  • mike

    NO offense, but I’d like to see some stats that suggest he is actually having a positive effect on the defensive end. I think his fundamentals on defense have shown minimal improvement at best from a general observation.

  • jim

    like the glass half full feel of this thread and the comments. i also would be interested in some stats – it looked like javale was getting more minutes for a stretch of games earlier in this win streak, but maybe not as much lately?

    that lakers game was a top to bottom spanking. we would win the championship if we played like that every night. hmm, maybe a 3 seed – 6 seed rematch with the lakers…?

  • clive

    he could become a longer version of tyson chandler. and tyson chandler is pretty long.

    • mike

      hypothetically he could be. I think the nuggets should set him up with a big man that they can hire for the year next year to be his personal coach. Someone who can teach him the fundamentals and will yell at him when he doesn’t meet high standards in that area. I don’t know that Charles Oakley or Horace Grant have the right personality to coach but someone who has some respect in the league AND played the game with strong fundamentals. Essentially he needs a babysitter/coach. Hakeem was a nice idea, he’s more of the type who is going to develop a guys elite level skills and offensive footwork. Guys like Dwight Howard and Al horford should go to hakeem. You have to walk before you run.

  • mike

    Antonio McDyess may be the perfect option. He is a guy who had similar skill set coming into the league as a supreme athlete, but developed into a fundamentally sound guy on both ends after the knee surgeries stole his athleticism.