Can Brian Shaw help JaVale McGee transform into a more conventional center?

“The anchor of the defense.” “Conventional.” “A presence in the middle.” “A true center.”

If you dropped these phrases on most NBA fans and asked them who came to mind, it’s a near certainty that none of them would answer, “JaVale McGee.”

And if in turn you surveyed them on how they’d describe McGee, you’d invariably end up with “bonehead,” “goofball” and “Shaqtin’-a-fool” on your short list of most common responses.

New Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw appears to be on a mission to change all that, however. He’s taking the team in a more traditional, fundamentally sound direction, and a major part of that plan is running more of the offense through his frontcourt players, above all McGee, who will be given a larger role with more responsibilities than he ever had under George Karl. The Nuggets are not just hoping JaVale can rise to the challenge; they’re banking on it, both literally and figuratively.

Shaw does want his team to continue playing at a relatively fast pace to take advantage of the team’s speed and Denver’s high altitude. So to a certain extent the freewheeling, breakneck Nuggets should remain fairly recognizable, and we can still expect to see the big men running the floor, cutting to the rim, and dunking and ooping with jaw-dropping athleticism. McGee will contentedly be in his comfort zone in those moments.

But the foundational principles of Shaw’s offensive system will be dramatically different. He is working on implementing a more orthodox inside-out offense that represents a distinct departure from Karl’s dribble-drive-motion system, which was predicated on driving and attacking the rim from the perimeter.

At the Nuggets’ media day presser last week (which you can listen to here on Altitude), Shaw was asked whether Wilson Chandler would continue to get some minutes at the power forward position, or would play more of a perimeter role. He replied:

I would say more of a perimeter role. I want to stay true to — You know, we have a ton of fours and fives. And I want to — I can only draw off of my experiences as a player and a coach and the kind of teams that I’ve been around that have had success. And all of those teams have had the more conventional lineups where you have a power and a center. The Indiana team that I was a part of the last two years, when Frank Vogel took over he went back to that conventional style as opposed to what it was under Jim O’Brien where they had stretch fours… The teams that I’ve been on have had a true center and a power forward, and play inside-out. And that’s what I’d like to do. […]

[O]ffensively we are blessed to have big, athletic players who can get up and down the court, but I’ve said from the first day that we want to go to these guys inside — something that wasn’t really stressed before, and I understand why. But teams that I’ve been a part of, that’s been major, you know. Teams have had a presence in the middle, and we have to establish a presence in the middle, and we’re going to give them an opportunity to do that.

Many Nuggets fans will welcome the change. Weary of all too many dream-crushing first round playoff exits, they have long clamored for a team better built to endure and thrive in the slower-paced, adjustment-heavy postseason grind.

But the new direction also raises some critical questions: How well can the players Denver has on the roster adapt to and execute this new system? Does Shaw have the right personnel on board to translate his vision into reality?

And when it comes to JaVale McGee, probably the most unconventional center – and perhaps player – in the entire league, most experts and fans will have their doubts about his ability to refine and channel his athleticism and talent into the more traditional mold Shaw is trying to shape for him. Can he adapt to this new role successfully, or at least make meaningful progress towards doing so? It is difficult to make a meaningful prediction about this either way, since JaVale really hasn’t yet been given the opportunity to see his developmental process through to conclusive results.

In the summer of 2012, McGee attended Hakeem Olajuwon’s camp to work on his post moves. This elevated expectations that he might be more of a focal point offensively, getting more touches and having more plays run through him. That didn’t end up panning out, however.

Karl kept Kosta Koufos in the starting slot, and wasn’t prepared to give any ground in the short term for the purpose of developing JaVale’s still-unfocused talent (which is part of the reason he now works for ESPN). This reluctance to run plays through McGee shows up in the numbers. shows that of McGee’s 745 offensive plays in 2012-13, just 127 (17 percent) were post-ups, compared to 195 cuts to the basket (26.2 percent) and 130 offensive rebounds (17.4 percent).

Contrast that picture with Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, the more conventional center Shaw worked with over the last two years. Of Hibbert’s 1433 offensive plays (notably, nearly twice the number McGee had), 681 (47.5 percent) were post-ups, 279 (19.5 percent) were offensive rebounds, and just 142 (9.9 percent) were cuts.

Obviously Shaw does not intend to magically transform McGee into Hibbert. Their physical gifts and skill sets are dramatically different. But it does seem clear that the mission is to develop and add, at least to a degree, more Hibbert-like dimensions to JaVale’s game so that the new inside-out offense can be successfully run through him. Among other things, JaVale will need to develop into a more reliable post player, as well as do a better job of reading the defense and finding open shots for his teammates.

In helping facilitate this process, Shaw has his work cut out for him. And then some.

After all, Karl’s decision to bring McGee off the bench and limit his touches was not without any rational justification. Putting aside philosophical differences on whether “win-now” or “develop for the future” should have been higher priorities for the Nuggets over the past two seasons (or whether they’re even mutually exclusive to begin with), if the goal was to win as many games as possible – and with Karl it certainly was – then keeping McGee’s touches in the post to a minimum was not an unreasonable choice.

McGee scored a lowly 0.58 points per possession on his post-ups last season, almost shockingly bad for a player of his size and athleticism. Given the fact that off cuts, in transition and as the pick-and-roll roll man his PPP was 1.3 or higher, and that it was 1.16 off offensive rebounds, there’s a very solid case to be made that Karl’s preference for letting him be more of a clean-up man than a go-to guy was well founded, as it was the most direct route to maximizing his efficiency in the short term.

Which brings us back to the original question: In an expanded role as presumptive starting center, under the guidance of Shaw and his assistants, can McGee find his way to being that “true” conventional center, or at least close enough to it to hold up his end of the bargain?

There may be some cause for cautious optimism. I’ve long been of the opinion that JaVale has gotten a bad rap for being a “stupid” player. By all accounts from people who actually know him, he’s quite an intelligent guy. (Last season Andre Iguodala said pithily: “JaVale McGee is one of the smartest guys I know.”) And while smarts off the court might not correspond precisely with basketball IQ, it’s easy to see that a lot of McGee’s blooper reel lowlights come as a result of poorly formed habits (spending his formative years in the maelstrom of the Arenas-Crittenton era Wizards didn’t help), trying too hard, or overextending himself. It’s not as much that his thought process is poor, it’s more than he acts before giving himself enough time to think at all.

So it’s encouraging that Shaw is working with McGee to apply the brakes on all that. As Chris Dempsey reported in the Denver Post:

“I’m just trying to get him to slow down,” Shaw said. “When he does catch the ball he’s 100 miles an hour, and he’s not reading what the defense is giving him. So, that’s what we’ve been working on with him, just to slow down so he can use the gifts that he has – his length and his athletic ability.”

The patience that Shaw is trying to cultivate will be crucial if JaVale is to reduce his propensity for flubbing plays. All too often, his mistakes come as a result of getting tunnel vision to the basket the instant his fingertips connect with the ball, and making an immediate move regardless of whether he’s out of position, double-teamed or in some otherwise inopportune situation. It may seem overly simplistic, but merely slowing McGee down could actually go a long way towards improving what’s perceived as his low basketball IQ by leading to better, more deliberated decision making.

Moving onto a different aspect of his offense, it’s as yet unclear whether another anticipated development in McGee’s game – the debut of his 17-foot jump shot – is to be welcomed or feared. (My guess is that a lot of Nuggets fans, knowing JaVale and remembering Marcus Camby, will gravitate towards the latter). According to Jeff Caplan of

[McGee] said he sees an offense that will station him at the elbow to begin sets and will allow him to work the low post and also stretch the defense with a mid-range jumper he said the league has yet to really lay eyes on, but one, he added, he can drain from 17 feet and in.

My first inclination – and the most realistic stance, in my opinion – is to remain skeptical on this count and file it squarely in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” category. If this is really going to be a new thing, one can only hope they’ll test the waters slowly and carefully. The prospect of JaVale having a green light to shoot from out to 17 feet may strike fear in the hearts of most Nuggets fans (mine inclued), but hopefully Shaw will constrain the shot to a privilege to be used sparingly, and not to be abused..

To his credit, McGee got off to a solid start in his first preseason game, sinking both of his shots outside the paint, one from 16 and the other from 18 feet. If he can demonstrate over the course of several months an ability to consistently hit a reasonably high percentage of his mid-range jumpers, that should indeed benefit not only his game in terms of keeping defenses honest, but the entire team with respect to floor spacing. Perhaps the most intriguing angle to this is the possibility he could use his jumper to expand his range of post moves by not just attacking the rim, but also being able to step away from the basket and use his height and length to shoot over his opponent.

But it’s not only on the offensive end of the court that McGee’s game will need to grow. When asked on media day about what the center will have to do in Shaw’s system, he answered:

Well, the center has to be the anchor of our defense first and foremost. They’re on the back line and they see everything that’s out in front of them. So they have to be a communicator, they have to be the anchor, they have to have a presence inside defensively.

To those who have watched a good amount of McGee’s defensive play, the above paragraph might read like an answer to the question, “What is the opposite of how JaVale McGee plays defense?” I’ll walk that back a little, since it’s not really fair to say JaVale has no presence inside. With his ability to block and alter shots, he can often dissuade opponents from going to the rim, or at least make them think twice about it.

But to keep it real: As a defender McGee is best known for biting on head fakes, swatting at everything that moves, getting out of position and losing his assignments, and failing to rotate and switch properly or quickly enough. And being a good communicator? It’s hardly even a blip on the radar screen.

In other words, as much work as he will need to do to revamp his offensive game – and that’s a lot – the transformation JaVale must go through defensively is all the more difficult and profound. He will he need to improve on some basic fundamentals like keeping his feet planted, boxing out and staying in position, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What Shaw truly requires first and foremost of McGee’s defense is increased awareness. And to reiterate what I said above, the problems thus far have not about a lack of intelligence, but rather lack of focus and attentiveness. Shaw is asking nothing less of his center than that he be aware not only of his own movements and tasks within the defensive scheme, but of those of all his teammates and opponents as well. That he will be both the eyes of the defense which absorb and comprehend how a play is unfolding and what needs to be done to stop it, and also the mouth that relays that information to the other players so they can all operate together cohesively in a unified team defensive effort.

That may all sound a bit melodramatic, but at the end of the day it’s what “anchor of the defense” really means. Can JaVale be that guy? Only time will tell.

Fortunately, Shaw’s approach thus far has been nothing but positive and clearly endearing to the players, and it’s highly doubtful that he will put unnecessary or unrealistic pressure on McGee or any of his other guys. He seems to be quite patient, starting things off slowly and simply, and not giving his team bigger bites than they can chew at one time.

And the good news for McGee in terms of the system itself is that, while he may carry the added burden of increased responsibility, what exactly his responsibilities are should be a lot clearer to grasp. With Shaw’s stated intention of minimizing all the switching done under Karl, and emphasizing a more clear-cut man-to-man defensive program, there should be much less room for confusion, and everyone’s roles and assignments should be much more clearly defined. Hopefully this simplicity should streamline and accelerate the learning curves for McGee and his teammates.

For the five seasons of his NBA career, JaVale McGee has been a project who has both tantalized the NBA with the promise of who he might become if he ever reaches his potential, and disappointment with his failure thus far to make significant headway towards reaching that pinnacle.

Will Brian Shaw be the coach who finally taps into that well of potential and facilitates McGee’s growth into that idyllic conventional, anchor-of-the-defense, presence-in-the-middle, true center?

If he helps McGee get even halfway there, the Nuggets’ future (not to mention JaVale’s career) will be all the brighter, and Shaw should sew up Coach of the Year for performing a minor NBA miracle.

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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.
  • dynamo.joe

    “Darrell Arthur and Timofey Mozgov will both be involved as well, but Arthur appears to be the fifth big man in the rotation — for now.”
    -Zach Lowe

    Thank God! My faith in Shaw is growing.

  • Chef Mikey

    I believe that one of the reasons Shaw got this gig was because of his work with Paul George, Hibbert and Lance Stephenson. He also worked with Andrew Bynum. Javale McGee has the work ethic, he just doesn’t have the basics down pat. If he can hone McGee’s gifts and make him slow down a bit, he can make the McGee that shone bright against the Lakers a couple of post seasons ago be more frequent than just a rare sighting.

  • slugdugg

    As much as Nene annoyed me, he would fit nicely in Shaw’s system