By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009
Interim coach Ed Tapscott understands that some Washington Wizards fans look at the team's 9-34 record and want him to give out heavy minutes to the team's young players even if that comes at the expense of trying to win games.
Specifically, there are fans and some NBA observers who wonder why the Wizards aren't playing rookie center JaVale McGee more. The talented but raw 7-footer started 13 games earlier in the season but has been in and out of the rotation since Tapscott took over as coach for Eddie Jordan on Nov. 24.
In Saturday night's 100-87 loss at Portland, the Wizards were manhandled in the paint by a front line that included Greg Oden, a second-year player in his first season of action. Yet McGee played less than six minutes, and Tapscott defended his continued decision to play natural power forwards Andray Blatche and Darius Songaila the bulk of minutes at center.
Essentially, Tapscott said that McGee, who started one season at the University of Nevada and is still developing physically, is not ready.
"We're looking for spots," Tapscott said. "Again, he's working hard but the game is more than running and dunking. The game is being able to set screens, defend the rim, execute the offense. There are a lot of different subtleties and intangibles to being an effective player for sustained minutes. He's working to get there and he has his moments, but when the game is at a high level and they are playing at a good level and somebody else gets in and plays well, they tend to stay in."
That begs this question: How is McGee supposed to gain experience if he doesn't play?
In the last six games, as the Wizards' season has continued to go in the tank, McGee has played more than 17 minutes only once. He scored a season-high 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked a pair of shots in a 23-minute stint in Thursday's blowout loss to the Lakers.
However, the bulk of those minutes came in the fourth quarter with the game well out of hand and when the Lakers had reserves on the floor as well.
"You can throw a guy in and you can end up hurting his development by doing that," Tapscott said. "If you put him in and he's overwhelmed, he's not able to play the game that builds confidence. The other thing, too, is that you want to establish a certain culture within your team where you reward work ethic, approach and all those things too. You don't give things to people, people earn them. They earn them through solid play and making contributions. Otherwise, you can destroy the fabric of your team. You don't do that for any one player ever."
For his part, McGee has maintained a positive outlook, plays hard when he's on the court and doesn't appear to lack confidence even when he gets pushed around or otherwise outplayed by stronger, more experienced players.
"Of course you always want to play more but I just have to stay positive, play hard and do what is asked of me," McGee said. "I'm just trying to keep working hard and whatever opportunities I get, I'll take."
The McGee situation is at the heart of a fault line that has developed on a roster that team president Ernie Grunfeld assembled with the idea that Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood would be available. Veterans such as Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Songaila still want to win on a nightly basis and don't want to sit and watch while the youngsters, who by nature are inconsistent, acquire on-the-job training.
"Just play those guys and lose games?" Jamison asked. "No, no, no. I'm not going to be a part of that. We're still trying to win games. Those guys have to earn their minutes and learn how to be professionals. That's how it is in this league."
At the same time, Tapscott continues to look for ways to develop McGee and second-year players Nick Young, Dominic McGuire and Javaris Crittenton. Another second-year player and 2006 first-round pick, forward-center Oleksiy Pecherov, has played very little.
From a pure basketball standpoint, Tapscott continues to search for a rotation that will be consistently successful, particularly when he goes small with a front line that has the 6-foot-9 Songaila at center along with the 6-9 Jamison at power forward.
"It's a conundrum I have yet to resolve," Tapscott said. "When we go small, we have greater offensive skill, better passing on the floor, better offensive concepts but we struggle obviously to rebound defensively and to protect the rim. When we go big, we get a little bit better rim protection, a little bit better rebounding but we're not as fluid offensively."
As for McGee, it's worth remembering that plenty of season remains.
"He's coming along gradually," Butler said. "You pick your spots to put him out there. He's going to make mistakes, but then again, he brings a lot. So let his play dictate how you play him. If he's off to a good start, let him run. If not, you're going to sit and talk to him and teach him."