Why JaVale McGee Is the Perfect Case of "Untapped Potential"

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterSeptember 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 12:  JaVale McGee #34 and Danilo Gallinari #8 of the Denver Nuggets react in the second quarter while taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Seven of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2012 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

It's not every day that an uber-athletic seven-footer with a 7'6" wingspan waltzes into the NBA. Nor is it a common occurrence for hall-of-famer and guru of giants Hakeem Olajuwon to lavish a young player with praise.

Which makes the case of JaVale McGee all the more curious. The Denver Nuggets are well aware of what he's been—a frustratingly immature kid prone to boneheaded mistakes (during his days with the Washington Wizards, anyway)—but were willing to gamble on the potential of the big fella from the University of Nevada.

And by gamble, I mean drop $44 million over four years after picking him up at the trade deadline last season, though McGee may well be worth every penny by the time those paychecks have all been cashed.

McGee certainly has the pedigree to be great. According to ESPN's Jeremy Lundblad, McGee is the first son of a WNBA player to reach The Association. His mother, Pam McGee, is known better nowadays for her vocal support of her son from the sidelines than for her myriad accomplishments on the court, which include two NCAA titles as an All-American at USC (alongside Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper), a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and two seasons in the WNBA with the Sacramento Monarchs and the LA Sparks.

Anyone who saw Games 3 and 5 of the Nuggets' first-round series against the Lakers this past spring understands that Pam's talents weren't lost on her son. In those two games combined (both Denver wins), JaVale put up 37 points, 29 rebounds and five blocks off the bench.

He was a handful to handle, even for the likes of All-Stars like Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. His energy and intensity, though sporadic in combination with his obvious physical gifts, also helped him to register 3.1 blocks per game in that series.

Not counting all the times he (stupidly) swiped at the ball for goaltending calls. It's all well and good that JaVale is an aggressive help defender who isn't afraid to put his long arms and leaping ability to frequent use, but he still has a ways to go as far as figuring out when to block a shot and how to do so in such a way that doesn't always end with the ball in the 15th row.

McGee's shortcomings in this regard point to a general lack of intelligence on the court, one that so often yields the lowlights seen so frequently on YouTube. He lapses into unhealthy habits as a help defender and struggles to hold down his position man-to-man—he surrendered a sky-high player efficiency rating (PER) of 21.2 to opposing centers while with the Nuggets, albeit an improvement over the 21.8 mark he surrendered with the Wizards (per 82games.com).

Those issues seemingly stem from McGee often resting on his considerable physical laurels to see him through. The same goes for his role as a rebounder, in which he's surprisingly ineffective. Despite his massive frame, McGee doesn't box out well and is too often pulled out of proper position when lunging for unsuccessful swats. According to ESPN's John Hollinger, Washington's rebound rate dropped by 5.4 percent when McGee was on the floor, while Denver's plummeted a full four percent.

These are rather jarring numbers on their own, even more so when considering McGee's skill set and potential as a seven-footer. Surely, a guy his size should be a credit, not a detriment, to his team's glass work.

McGee's offensive game could use some refinement as well, especially his free-throw shooting (46.1 percent from the line in 2011-12). So far, though, his three weeks on Hakeem Olajuwon's ranch seem to have served him well in this regard.

The very fact that he spent as much time with "The Dream" as he did—more than any other prospective pupil has yet spent with the master of post moves—is an encouraging sign in and of itself. It appears that McGee is finally taking the game seriously, that he wants to maximize his talents rather than simply fall back on them for easy money. One summer won't likely be enough to transform him into an All-Star, though the solidification of a more relentless work ethic and the commitment to working on the finer points of his game represent significant steps in the right direction for JaVale.

And, by all accounts, McGee finally started to grow up once he was rescued from DC's basketball cesspool. As Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri told ESPN's Chris Broussard:

"We haven't had one problem with him. Not once have I needed to sit JaVale down in my office. He's always on time, he loves the gym. I think he's growing up and maturing. Some of the things he did when he was younger were not the right things to do at the time, but young guys are going to be that way. But he's a good kid. There are no complaints about him from any of the players or the coaches."

It would seem, then, that McGee's head is screwed on more tightly than it once was, even if his attempts to feed his fans and ride around on a Segway suggest that he's yet to fully relinquish his goofy side.

Not that anyone should expect him to just yet. He's still only 24, after all, with more money at his disposal than most people would ever dream of spending in many lifetimes.

But if/when he does get his act together, the rest of the NBA had better take notice. The Nuggets are long on talent as is, but could emerge as a serious threat in the Western Conference (again) if/when McGee starts playing like the top-notch center he's capable of being, especially given the league's lack of quality pivots in this day and age.

As Hakeem told Broussard of JaVale:

"He's a big guy with a lot of agility and very skilled. He's long, he can handle. I mean, he has all the tools. He created his own [moves]. He mastered all the moves. Now he'll put in moves to create space and finish. He should be able to dominate the league. It's up to him how high he wants to go."

Indeed, it's not every day that a player's fate, between passable mediocrity and elite performance, rests so firmly in his own hands. Yet, that's precisely the case for JaVale McGee, a big kid whose hopes for hoops stardom (and those of his team for ultimate success) are riding on his slow-but-steady move into manhood.