ATLANTA — Javale McGee is a focused player. Pregame, he is listening to music in his Beats by Dre headphones, grabbing a snack, and getting stretched out closer to tip-off in comparison to the rest of his teammates. He nibbles while the trainer gets him loose.
McGee was once known to the casual NBA fan as the guy that’s always on Shaqtin’ a Fool. But now, he’s redefining himself as a key role player on a team expected to be in the NBA Finals for a third straight season.
“The atmosphere here is great, it’s so positive,” McGee told SB Nation in March. “Positivity definitely helps when you play basketball. It’s no negative vibes, nothing negative about it so it’s definitely a great environment.”
A last-minute training camp invite in October, McGee has turned into a useful player for the Golden State machine. In Game 2 of the NBA playoffs against the Trail Blazers, McGee shot a perfect 7-of-7, tallying 15 points with five rebounds and four blocks in just 13 minutes. He was the story on a night that the Warriors dominated without Kevin Durant.
The veteran center credits Steve Kerr with helping him focus and assistant coach and former NBA center Jarron Collins for giving him the information he needs to succeed in his role.
“That’s like my designated coach, and he really helps with the plays and really knowing where I need to be on the court,” McGee said. “The rest is just me knowing my role and excelling in that.”
He averaged the fewest amount of minutes in his career at 9.8 per game, but his averages on field goals and field goal attempts went up, along with his field goal percentage.
His explosiveness and athletic plays help both offensively and defensively, whether it be a thunderous dunk or a demoralizing block. They’re momentum plays that starting center Zaza Pachulia doesn’t provide. They’re a much-needed added dynamic to an already prolific offense.
“Drawing attention, rim running, you know — doing his job,” Shaun Livingston says when asked what McGee offers to the Warriors. “Bringing energy off the bench, giving us all energy in life.”
McGee came to the Warriors looking to revitalize a career that careened off the wrong path.
Drafted 18th overall by the Washington Wizards in the 2008 NBA draft out of Nevada, McGee was a prospect with plenty of upside. After coming off of the bench for his first two seasons, McGee became a starter in 2010-11, where he averaged 10.1 points and 8.0 rebounds. Yet, he was more well-known for a long collection of bloopers, which symbolized the laughable state of the team during his time there.
The following year, he posted better numbers, yet was traded midway through the season to the Nuggets in return for Nene. The Wizards didn’t want to commit big money to McGee, so they moved on and acquired a proven veteran center.
Once in Denver, McGee started just five of his 20 games, but was still putting up similar numbers with less playing time. The following season, McGee’s numbers didn’t change, but his reputation still didn’t improve.
“They never look at when I was with Denver we went to the playoffs two years in a row.,” McGee says. “I was playing great also, almost a double-double.”
Before his image could change, his injury woes began when he fractured his left leg in November. Hoping for a comeback season in 2014-15, he went down yet again with a stress fracture in the same leg. That, along with nagging leg strains limited him to just 23 games during the season. Later that season, he was traded to the Sixers on the day of the trade deadline. He played sparing minutes in six games for the Sixers, before being waived at the beginning of March.
After being cut and off the basketball floor for an extended time, doctors discovered something that helped explain the recurring injury to McGee’s leg. He had anemia, and the lack of iron in his blood prevented him from properly healing. Finally, he had some answers.
“People definitely overlooked it,” McGee says of his injuries. “After the injury, everything just stifled.”
Once 2016 rolled around, McGee was a forgotten man in the NBA.
The Warriors were coming off of a historic 73-9 regular season and NBA Finals collapse. With centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli moving on to make room for Kevin Durant, the team needed a new big man and were willing to take a chance.
Andre Iguodala, a former teammate of McGee’s in Denver, decided to pick up the phone.
“I actually had been calling him like last year, year before that,” Iguodala says. He looks at McGee, tapping him on the chest with the back of his hand. “He’s been trying to give me the run around.”
Eventually, McGee bit.
“I remember them texts I was hitting him up,” Iguodala adds. “But [we] finally got a chance to get him.”
McGee’s been a breath of fresh air ever since.
McGee’s feud with Shaquille O’Neal over Shaqtin’ a Fool was unfortunate, though not unexpected.
He grew tired of taking so much ridicule while being portrayed as having a low level of intelligence. Those who know him best know how inaccurate that stereotype is.
“Sad part of our game sometimes is perception isn’t reality,” Iguodala says. “I think he was a case [of that].”
For the first time, McGee was in an environment where the organization and his teammates fully had his back. He felt like he finally stood up to a bully.
And though the feud grew profane and nasty, it was a key turning point for McGee’s confidence. McGee’s improvement is due in large part to Steve Kerr, Jarron Collins, or a host of other people. But don’t underestimate the degree to which the off-court weight has been lifted, even if only partially.
The only problem now is that McGee may have revived his career too much for the Warriors.
“Somebody’s going to steal him from us after this year,” Iguodala says.