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Making the Case Against JaVale McGee as Denver Nuggets' Starting Center

Dec 11, 2012; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee (34) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Nuggets beat the Pistons 101-94. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports
Preston DeGarmoAnalyst IDecember 17, 2012

At the quarter mark of this NBA season, JaVale McGee has yet to start a single game for the Denver Nuggets. Despite his immense talent and athleticism, McGee has been held to under 20 minutes per game this season, and as a result has been unable to post the breakout numbers many expected of him in his fifth NBA season.

Though McGee is clearly viewed as a core piece going forward by the Nuggets brass who signed him to a massive extension this summer, he has yet to receive any star treatment on this deep Denver roster in which Kosta Koufos has spent the entire season ahead of him on the depth chart.

Though it may seem foolish to keep a player of McGee’s extreme upside on the bench, George Karl is not wrong to play McGee with the second unit. Though an elite shot-blocker, McGee is still learning how to play smart team defense, and his propensity for committing mental errors has led fans to laugh and coaches to groan on multiple occasions.

However, it is not just McGee’s flaws that make him a better fit for the second unit. McGee seems to have developed great chemistry with veteran point guard Andre Miller, who is one of the league’s premier passers and who is always looking for the athletic big man driving to the rim. Though McGee’s success is by no means dependent on his partnership with Miller, Miller has grown accustomed to finding McGee in his spots—and starting point guard Ty Lawson is not the passer that Miller is.

Though there are plenty of reasons to argue why McGee should or shouldn’t start, the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. There’s no doubt that McGee is a starting-caliber center, but Kosta Koufos has played well as a starter this season, and his tremendous size and superior awareness on the defensive end make him a good fit with Denver’s key starters.

The more relevant question is whether McGee should finish games. And apart from his poor free-throw shooting, there’s no good reason why he shouldn’t. McGee has continued to protect the rim very well this season, and his finishing ability inside can offer the Nuggets a distinct advantage when outside shots aren’t falling.

Though McGee shouldn’t necessarily be thrust into the starting lineup without good reason, he is certainly deserving of an increase in playing time. McGee has been extremely efficient this season, and the team seems to fare much better in games where he earns 20-plus minutes than those where he inexplicably plays closer to 16.

Though George Karl is easily frustrated by McGee’s frequent mishaps on the court, this is no reason to limit the promising young center’s opportunities, especially when he has managed to average over 10 points, five rebounds and two blocks in fewer than 20 minutes per game. McGee’s per-36 minute stats translate to an incredible 19.8 points, 9.7 points and 3.7 blocks per game. Those are Dwight Howard-esque numbers, and they offer a glimpse into what McGee could accomplish in a larger role.

McGee shouldn’t necessarily start for the Denver Nuggets this season. After all, Koufos has done a fine enough job and lineup changes could threaten to disrupt the chemistry this Nuggets team is still working to build. However, it is simply inexcusable for Karl to play McGee anything less than 25 minutes per game. Basketball IQ aside, McGee is vastly more talented than any other center on Denver’s roster, and his phenomenal potential cannot be ignored.

McGee doesn’t need to start games, but he most certainly needs to finish them, lest the Nuggets risk missing out on the growth of an All-Star center.

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