- Eddie Matz
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ON A THURSDAY afternoon in March, JaVale McGee and the Wizards were in New Orleans, preparing to play the Hornets. Just after the NBA's 3 p.m. trade deadline, McGee's cellphone rang. On the other end was Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri, calling to tell McGee he'd just been dealt to Denver. "You can fly in tomorrow evening," said Ujiri. "My assistant will call you to arrange the flights." At that point, any rational 24-year-old would be thinking, Sweet, that means I can party tonight in the Big Easy and not have to wake up early. Instead, McGee's response was this: "Isn't there a morning flight I can take?" The next day, he was on a 7 a.m. plane headed for the Rockies. Safe to say, the kid was eager for a fresh start.
Surely, you've heard of McGee. Perhaps you know him as the freakishly athletic seven-footer who took second place in the 2011 slam dunk contest when he flushed two balls through two hoops on one jump. Or as the MC Escher of Twitter, a social media surrealist who uses an alter ego to retweet
himself. Most likely, though, if you're familiar with McGee, it's because of his blooper reel: a YouTube rubbernecker aptly titled "JaVale McGee Top 8 Dumb Plays" (nearly 3 million views). It features, among other things, a one-on-zero fast break in which the subject lobs the ball to himself off the backboard, dunks it and then proudly salutes the crowd -- with his team down six. That play, along with its seven other lowlights, occurred during his three-plus years with the woeful Wizards, begging the question: Now that he's rocking the uni of a legit contender, is the NBA's most bizarre player finally ready to grow up?
EVERY DECADE, it seems, an oddball baller emerges from the NBA ranks to colorize and polarize an otherwise homogenized league. In the 1990s, it was Dennis Rodman. In the 2000s, it was the Artest Formerly Known as Ron. In the 2010s, it's JaVale McGee. Like the Worm and MWP before him, McGee is accused of being a bit off, when the reality may be that he's a misunderstood genius. "People portray him as a goofball," says teammate Kenneth Faried, "but he's actually a really intelligent guy."
"Everything I do is premeditated," says McGee, who grew up in Flint, Mich., with dreams of being a filmmaker. Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie were his faves. As a kid, he produced Blair Witch Project rip-offs by taking his aunt's camera and shooting in night-vision mode. When it came time to choose a college, USC was his top choice because of its renowned film school, but the Trojans wanted him to redshirt, so he opted for the University of Nevada. "I chose basketball over film." The decision, fair to say, hasn't affected his ability to know what entertains an audience.
Exhibit A: @JaValeMcGee34, a Twitter account with more than 70,000 followers in which McGee, under the alias Pierre (an alter ego he devised during his early NBA years), retweets himself ("cuz what I say is that important"). It's often hilarious: "I had a dream I woke up and had a nightmare about having no dreams!" Often ludicrous: "I ask all the important rhetorical
questions! Do I not? That was rhetorical." And sometimes just curious, like when he posted a pic of a tot in a stroller looking intensely at the camera, with the caption: "This baby been staring at me for the last 10mins straight!" But as fascinating as Pierre is on Twitter, JaVale in person is the opposite.
During an interview inside the Nuggets' player lounge following an early-October practice, McGee spends the majority of the time staring at a large bottle of Simply Orange, giving terse answers to seemingly annoying questions. After changing out of his uniform, he exits the room wearing a dark gray hoodie pulled over his head and a T-shirt that reads: "Don't trust anyone." You could hardly blame him for not trusting the media. You also can't blame him for trying to control the message, given the beating he's taken. "People try to bring negativity into my life," says McGee, "but it's crazy how I deflect it." Heck, for all we know, those YouTube gaffes -- the egregious goaltend against Sacramento, the botched foul line dunk vs. Miami -- were intentional. Perhaps while we're all busy laughing at "JaVale McGee Top 8 Dumb Plays," he's sitting in a director's chair, laughing right back at us for aiding and abetting the creation of a phenomenon.
Or perhaps not. If you don't buy that McGee is a genius with a master plan, you still have to give him credit for being smart enough to align himself with Faried, Denver's workaholic second-year forward. As soon as the trade went down, the two bigs, who share the same agency, hooked up on the phone. Faried, aware of the Wizards' well-earned reputation for a) losing, and b) being, um, distractible, admonished his new teammate in no uncertain terms. "Yo," Faried said, "we work here." And work they did.
In August, with the sting of a seven-game first-round playoff loss to the third-seeded Lakers still fresh, McGee and Faried spent three weeks in the sweltering Houston heat, receiving private tutoring from Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. The Dream spent the boot camp sharing his infinite array of inside moves with the young Nuggets, honing their footwork and
preaching a simple message: Make your fakes real. McGee, who despite being a seven-footer has always played more of a small forward's offensive game, turned out to be a quick study. So quick that during a full-go mano a mano between McGee and Olajuwon, the pupil duped the master with a trademark Dream shake. "I was like, 'Holy crap,'" says Faried. "He's going to be a force this year." Then again, that's been the thinking for the past four years.
Ever since the Wizards selected him with the 18th pick in 2008, McGee -- who declared after his sophomore season at Nevada -- has been long on promise. His mother is Pamela McGee, a former All-American who won back-to-back titles at USC and gold at the '84 Olympics. Following a successful career overseas, she became the second pick in the inaugural WNBA draft. His father is George Montgomery, a former 6'9" center who in 1985 was a second-round pick of the Trail Blazers. JaVale is, in fact, the first offspring of NBA and WNBA players. He elevates well for a big man (31∏-inch vertical) and has a wingspan that rivals that of a wandering albatross (7 feet, 6 1/2 inches, longest in the league). But despite the pedigree, he wallowed in Washington.
His first two years there, he averaged just 16 minutes a game. After he cracked the starting five the following season, his glimpses of greatness were overshadowed by flashes of foolishness. Take March 15, 2011. Needing just one more point for a triple-double, McGee devoted the final four minutes of a 19-point loss to Chicago firing up miss after miss. When he finally scored on a two-handed slam with 18 seconds remaining, he was so pleased with himself that he yanked on the rim until he got whistled for a technical foul. Another time, facing Toronto, McGee hoisted an errant skyhook, then put his head down and sprinted back on defense all the way past halfcourt, unaware that the Wizards had corralled the rebound and were waiting for him to reset the offense. Ironically, Ujiri points to that play -- No. 2 on "JaVale McGee Top 8 Dumb Plays" -- as an example of what McGee
brings to the table. "Call me crazy," says the Denver GM, "but when I look at that play, I see hustle."
CRAZY IS EXACTLY what people were calling the Nuggets after they inked their young center to a four-year, $44 million contract in July. At the time, the deal made McGee the team's highest-paid player, a lofty title for a work-in-progress who started just five of 20 regular-season games after coming to Colorado. But if the first round of the 2012 playoffs was any indication, Denver's sizable investment is nearing maturity: With his team down 3-1 to the Lakers, McGee went off for 21 points, 14 boards and zero bonehead plays, almost single-handedly saving Denver from playoff extinction. "Athletically, JaVale has all the tools," says head coach George Karl. "He just needs to build a foundation of fundamentals and consistency." Says Ujiri, "It
takes awhile for big guys to develop." Not that the Nuggets haven't tried to expedite the process.
From the moment that 7 a.m. flight from New Orleans touched down in March, McGee has had a standing biweekly meeting with Ujiri. The first one came in Toronto, following a loss to the lowly Raptors in which McGee dunked and proceeded to salute the crowd, just as he did after the one-on-zero, off-the-backboard flush. No more salutes, the boss told his big. "Let's concentrate on winning." Perhaps most important, McGee now finds himself surrounded by teammates more likely to light a fire under his ass than put a stink bomb in his shoe -- guys like Andre Iguodala. "Andre works so hard," says Ujiri, "that you look stupid if you're not doing the same thing." Says McGee, "There's definitely more motivation here than there was in Washington."
As for McGee's off-court life, the Nuggets are content to let JaVale be JaVale. He still sends out bizarre tweets ("#weak when u make a million dollars, cash it into quarters, try to dive into it like Scrooge mcduck and break both ur arms!"). He still zooms around downtown Denver on a Segway. He still does curious things, like when he plunked down 30 bucks for a red furry plush Elmo backpack that's been practically attached to his back ever since, and for which he's received constant ribbing from friends and strangers alike. Recently, as he and Elmo were walking out of the 16th Street Noodles & Company, a woman stopped him. "It's ironic that you're so big and you have this little kid's backpack," she said. To which McGee responded, "Finally ... someone gets it!"
Late on a mid-September night, with Elmo safely tucked away in the Pepsi Center locker room, McGee the jokester was nowhere in sight. He stood at the free throw line on the far end of the practice court, opposite a ball-feeding machine. For all the things he does well -- run the floor, protect the rim, handle the rock, finish strong -- there's plenty for McGee to improve.
He's prone to foul trouble and goaltending, his midrange jumper is virtually nonexistent and, as you may have heard, his decision making is questionable. As Karl puts it, "He needs to take the crazy out of his game." But nowhere does the big fella need more work than at the free throw line.
By his own estimate, McGee hits 70 out of every 100 foul shots in practice. By his own admission, he clams up in games. "When there's 15,000 people out there, you start thinking too much." It doesn't help that he suffers from asthma. Or that he has mitts the size of MacBooks, such that it's hard for his left hand not to interfere with the flight of the ball from his right hand. Still, the fact is that McGee's free throw percentage has dropped every year, from 66 percent as a rookie to 46 percent last season. After the trade, he shot just 37 percent. Whether or not he starts on a Denver squad that's expected to be among the best in the West -- the current thinking is that he'll be paired with veteran point guard and alley-oop specialist Andre Miller coming off the bench -- McGee wants to be on the court at crunch time, and you can't do crunch time shooting 37 percent.
So there was McGee, toeing the stripe at 10 p.m., two weeks before vet camp was scheduled to start. It was such an unexpected sight that Ujiri, who'd left the building earlier but returned to grab something he forgot, whipped out his iPhone and snapped a photo. Then he sent it to team president Josh Kroenke. There was no message attached, but there didn't need to be. The picture said it all. Finally ... JaVale McGee gets it.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann