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.