McGee Positions Himself Front and Center for Key Role

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

Yesterday, at the conclusion of their first practice since returning from Europe, the Washington Wizards separated to different ends of the practice court to work on free throws and individual drills. Four baskets along the baselines were lowered from the ceiling, and rookie JaVale McGee studied one, leaning back and forth, timing his leap. McGee took a running start, elevated and grabbed the rim well before it settled in at 10 feet above the ground.

In one move, McGee showcased his incredible athleticism and impatience, the two qualities that have helped the 7-foot center make an impression much sooner than expected with teammates, coaches and opponents alike during this preseason. The Wizards have had few bright spots during a 1-4 preseason, but McGee has provided some optimism. He's also caused some confusion over which player Jordan plans to name his opening-night starting center, now that Brendan Haywood is out at least four months following surgery on his right wrist.

Etan Thomas, back after missing all of last season with a heart ailment, started the first four games of the preseason and was expected to assume the role in Haywood's absence, but when asked yesterday if Thomas would be the starting center against New Jersey on Oct. 29, Jordan said, "Don't know yet."

McGee was a surprise starter in the Wizards' 96-80 loss to New Orleans on Friday, and he responded with 15 points, 2 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in 21 minutes. McGee also collected a fan in Hornets all-star point guard Chris Paul, who said McGee belongs "in that Dwight Howard category" of athleticism after McGee blocked one of Paul's shots in the third quarter.

"I appreciate it," McGee said of Paul's compliment. "I got to keep working hard so I can be better than that or just as good."

Before training camp, Jordan said McGee likely wouldn't be part of his rotation. And when Haywood tore a ligament in his right wrist, Jordan still had McGee fourth on the depth chart behind Thomas, Andray Blatche and Darius Songaila.

Jordan said he still likes the veteran Thomas's force, Blatche's skill and versatility and Songaila's shooting ability and knowledge of the offense. But McGee forced Jordan to pay him more attention in the Wizards' second preseason game against Memphis, an 89-80 win in which McGee scored 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting with eight rebounds and three blocks. McGee had two uneven performances against Detroit and New Orleans before Jordan decided to give McGee a look with the starters.

"Like I said, 'Knock, knock. Somebody is at the door, guys,' " Jordan said. "The opportunity is going to be there. If it opens up, be careful. Watch out, because he's progressing."

McGee is the Wizards' second-leading scorer this preseason at 10.6 points per game, while also contributing 4.4 rebounds, a team-high 1.8 blocked shots and shooting 54.1 percent from the floor. Jordan said he couldn't say if McGee will start on Wednesday against San Antonio, but added that putting him on the floor to tip off against the Spurs' Tim Duncan was "intriguing."

"He's making progress," Jordan said of McGee. "He tries. There is a sincere effort to get better defensively. He's coachable. We've said some things as a coaching staff that he's grasped and he's trying to deliver. That's what's encouraging."

After practice, McGee worked on low post moves with assistant Phil Hubbard and volunteer Tony Massenburg, a former NBA player and Maryland star. Asked how he felt about facing Duncan this week, McGee shrugged his shoulders. "I don't really care about the big names or nothing like that. I don't know. I just never grew up to fear anybody or admire, so it's nothing," said McGee, the 18th pick of last summer's NBA draft.

McGee said that even before Haywood's injury, he never thought he would spend the entire season on the bench, using a soft-spoken confidence that doesn't come off as cocky.

"I don't wish injury on anybody, but I was just like, 'Well if the opportunity opens, I'm going to have to take it,' " the 20-year-old McGee said, as two chocolate candy bars slipped from his hands. "I don't really feel pressure at all. I just go out and play and do what I do. I really don't even think about it. I just think about playing."

Wizards Note: Nick Young returned to practice yesterday after missing the past two weeks with a sore right knee. Young said he expects to play on Friday against Cleveland. He added that the injury may require surgery after the season. "I'm not trying to do that now. It don't hurt that bad," Young said.

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