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JaVale McGee leaps into the spotlight during John Wall's summer league debut

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; D03

LAS VEGAS -- The overflowing crowd -- some standing along the sidelines and others in the stands, many dressed in University of Kentucky T-shirts -- gathered at Cox Pavilion on Sunday night to get their first look at No. 1 overall pick John Wall. But it was impossible for them to watch the Washington Wizards without gazing at the 7-foot-1 gazelle galloping up and down the floor, grabbing rebounds and dunking with ferocity.

JaVale McGee announced his arrival at summer league shortly after the opening tip, after Wall dove to the ground to recover a loose ball, gathered himself and flipped the ball ahead. With an open court ahead of him, McGee enhanced his collection of electrifying, highlight-reel slams when he leaped, rocked the basketball near his knees, whirled it around and dunked, much to the amusement of the audience.

Wall later found McGee for an alley-oop dunk, tossing the ball well out of the reach of any Golden State Warriors, and watched McGee throw it down with two hands. Wall said he has already learned, "You throw it anywhere around the rim and he'll get it."

McGee finished with 21 points, a summer-league-best 13 rebounds and two blocked shots, dazzling awe-struck fans with his incredible athleticism and unique flair. But McGee has been down this road before, having already turned summer league into his personal showcase last summer, when he averaged 17.3, 6.3 rebounds and 4 blocked shots and earned an invitation to participate in Team USA mini-camp.

"It's no nervous bugs since I've already done it," McGee said on Sunday. "I'm just coming out here to show everybody what I have. I'm trying to get out there and be aggressive and not back down from anybody and show them that we're ready to defend and get some wins out here.

"I believe I'm the highest excitement I can be," McGee said, "and I'm just ready for next season."

He expected to build upon his summer league success last season to become a serviceable backup for Brendan Haywood, but he wound up mostly getting buried on the bench until the Wizards dealt Haywood to Dallas near the trade deadline. McGee eventually slid into a starting role and he responded with some decent games, but he was inconsistent and struggled with his endurance and strength. Coach Flip Saunders had McGee finish the season coming off the bench.

McGee said he learned that he had to "get stronger and gain some patience." This offseason, McGee made getting stronger his primary focus and he arrived at summer league seven pounds heavier and even grew another inch in height. "I'm starting to grow into my body and I'm starting to mature more, not mentally, but physically," said McGee, who averaged 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds last season. "I've just been trying to lift weights every day and eat a lot. I'm trying to get my legs strong and my upper body. Once I stopped growing, I'm starting to fill out."

Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said last week that he has been impressed with McGee's growth. "JaVale's made good strides. He's worked very hard in the offseason," Grunfeld said. "We want to see continued development. I think he got better at the end of last season and I hope he continues on that pace."

McGee is the only player on the Wizards' roster locked into the center position, and Saunders has said that it is imperative that McGee makes the most of the summer, with him projected as the likely starter.

"His big thing is working on his rebounding, defensive-type rebounding. If we can defensive rebound as a team, we can be pretty good because John is so good in the open floor and has such great speed," said Saunders. "He's going to make JaVale and big guys, he's going to make them a lot of easy buckets.

"As much from a strength standpoint, going against main type centers, he's not as strong as some of those guys so he gets pushed around. What happens is he gets in foul trouble so quick and that takes him right out of his game," he said. "He's going to have to learn to play at our level and be able to play as far as from the beginning."

Asked if McGee could develop that this summer, Saunders said, "He's going to have to."

McGee has already focused on developing chemistry with Wall, with the two connecting on three alley-oop dunks. He also benefited from simply running the floor with Wall when Wall broke down the defense and slipped inside the lane for what should've been an easy reverse layup. But Wall missed, McGee trailed and cleaned it up with a putback, two-handed dunk before any Warriors could even react.

"It's definitely lovely," McGee said of playing with Wall. "He's looking for passes and he's looking for his own, so it's even. It's no selfishness on the court. We just trying to be good teammates and get that 1-5 [point guard-center connection] going to make sure that we can make it flow correctly and maybe get some highlights this year and be an exciting and a winning team."

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