Last season, everything JaVale McGee gave the Denver Nuggets was a bonus. A backup center who played 18 minutes a night, he posted a 20.7 PER, with eye-popping per-36 minute averages of 18 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks on 58-percent shooting. However, with Kosta Koufos around, George Karl kept McGee on a short leash, not trusting him in a featured role.
This season, with both Karl and Koufos gone, the Nuggets have no choice but to depend on him. Will this end well?
Physical tools have never been the issue for McGee. At 7-feet and 250 pounds with a 7'6 wingspan, he is one of the longest players in the NBA. Combine that length with a max vertical of more than 30 inches, and McGee operates on a higher plane than almost any of his opponents. It should be almost impossible to consistently score over the top of him; conversely, he can finish over even the longest defenders.
In the first round of the 2012 playoffs, McGee gave a tantalizing glimpse at his potential when he went toe-to-toe with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In a Game 5 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, McGee had 21 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks on 9-for-12 shooting. While he had a grand total of eight points in Games 6 and 7, a seven-footer with the ability to dominate that Lakers front line, even for a stretch, is going to get paid.
But while Denver gave McGee a four-year, $44 million contract in the offseason, he never earned Karl's trust. The problem wasn't the shenanigans chronicled in TNT's "Shaqtin A Fool;" it was the routine mental breakdowns that never made the highlights. Koufos, despite lacking McGee's physical gifts, was much more dependable. In 2012-13, the Nuggets were 4.2 points per 100 possessions better with Koufos on the floor and 4.6 points per 100 possessions worse with McGee, per NBA.com.
Going forward, the big concern is how McGee fits upfront with Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets' other young big man. In the 439 minutes they played together last season, Denver was -1.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. In theory, if the two can hold their own offensively and protect the defensive glass, they can blow away teams in transition. Like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in Los Angeles, their biggest challenge will be mental, not physical.
Of course, the last time an NBA team was counting on McGee to be a featured player, it ended in disaster. In terms of physical talent, you would be hard pressed to find a better duo than McGee and Andray Blatche. However, instead of leading the Wizards into the future, they were two of the inmates running the asylum in Washington. McGee has never had a problem putting up stats; the challenge has been translating that production towards helping his team win.
This time around, youth can't be an excuse. McGee is no longer on a cap-friendly rookie contract; he's a 25-year old headed into his sixth season in the league. He's being paid too much money to be a bench player. To justify his $11 million salary, McGee has to be on the floor for 30-35 minutes a night. With the Nuggets in a transition year, he doesn't need to carry the team, but he must prove that he can be a starting center in the NBA.
Even in an increasingly perimeter-oriented sport, a center who can impact the game on both ends of the floor is the gold standard. Take a look at the centers for the teams in last year's second round that didn't have LeBron James and Kevin Durant: Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Marc Gasol. LeBron and Durant aren't walking through the door in Denver, so McGee's development is crucial for the Nuggets to remain relevant.
Human beings with McGee's combination of length, athleticism and coordination don't come around too often. Patience is essential with big men; it can take a long time for the light to turn on. Tyson Chandler didn't average 30 minutes a game until the age of 24. At 28, he was the missing piece on a championship team in Dallas. At 29, he made his first All-Star team.
That's the thing about talented seven-footers: They only have to succeed once. Everything before that is just progress.