How do you miss a hook shot, run the wrong way on the court, lumber back and miss an alley oop all in the same play? Just ask JaVale McGee, who is just as famous for this sequence as he is for any good stat or game in the NBA. McGee often makes boneheaded plays like this one, and people have come to accept that these idiotic plays are just JaVale being JaVale. One of the few who haven’t accepted McGee’s fate as just a “Not Top Ten Nominee” are the Denver Nuggets, who not only traded for him but gave him a big extension last summer. His four year, 44 million dollar contract was a huge gamble; last season he made more money than Tim Duncan, Paul Millsap, and Omer Asik. But the Nuggets didn’t stop there, trading away Kosta Koufos, the center that started over McGee most of the season, for Darrell Arthur. The Nuggets are all in on their 25 year old center, but should they be? Can McGee ever break out of the shadows of his own boneheaded plays and be one of the better centers in the league?
The Denver Nuggets took some heat this offseason after the unexpected firing of Coach George Karl, who had great success getting his teams to the playoffs and not much success after that. Karl was named Coach of the Year in 2013, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him around for another year. One of the reasons of his firing may have been his handling of the center position. Karl played Koufos around 4 more minutes per game than McGee in the regular season and started Koufos in all but one of the regular season games. It was an interesting decision, considering McGee’s PER was almost 3 points higher than Koufos, and that McGee averaged 6 more points per 36 minutes than his teammate.
The Nuggets front office staff saw this and made sure McGee would get the job by trading away Koufos, and they expect JaVale to have a breakout year in what will be his 6th NBA season. McGee’s points and efficiency have all slightly increased each season in the NBA, with McGee having the third highest field goal percentage among qualifying players last season. He shoots exceptionally well from the paint area, shooting 61.6% last season. But he really struggles anywhere outside the paint, only shooting 65 non-paint two pointers and making 26.2% of them. This illustrates McGee’s only real offensive skill: dunking the basketball above everyone else. He is an elite finisher, but he lacks a post game and a jump shot that are vital to an 11 million dollar a year center. I think the Nuggets should have kept Koufos around as a security blanket, but eventually the team wanted to give McGee the minutes to prove himself and hopefully shine. He is 25 and should be entering his prime, so why not now for McGee to reach his ceiling as an elite rim protector and finisher?
It will be hard for McGee to ever be worth all that money without a league average jumper or an arsenal of post moves, and Javale’s opportunity to learn such moves might have already passed. Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard shot a similarly pitiful 21.4% in two pointers outside the paint in the 2012-2013 season, and offers a bleak outlook on improving your shooting percentages outside of rim finishes. In 2007, Dwight shot 43% from 3-9 feet from the basket per hoopdata.com. Last season, he shot 44.9 from that same range. It is hard even for one of the best centers in the game to improve upon an offensive game built around dunks. JaVale will probably always be a below average shooter, so he will have to compensate by working harder on the offensive glass and becoming a super efficient finisher at the rim.
The good news for JaVale is that even in his sixth season, he hasn’t fully reached his potential. Under young head coach Brian Shaw, McGee could blossom into a Tyson Chandler like rim protector and pick and roll finisher. It will be interesting to see if JaVale can stay as efficient as his per 36 minute numbers say he was last season when his minutes are ramped up. I think McGee will never be one of the best centers in the league, and the Nuggets would agree. But I think he could easily earn the rest of his 11 million dollar a year contract with All-Defensive Team selection and three more efficient seasons in the Mile High city.