By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010; D01
JaVale McGee's expected brief visits to Las Vegas have turned into extended stays the past two years. His above-the-rim acrobatics for the Washington Wizards' summer league team keep catching the eye of Team USA Managing Director Jerry Colangelo and allowing McGee to cash in -- like a bucket full of poker chips -- with an invitation to work out for the U.S. men's national team.
But unlike last summer, when McGee participated in a minicamp for up-and-coming NBA players, the third-year center this year is auditioning for the 12-man roster that will compete in the world championships in Turkey next month.
"I feel like it shows someone sees something special," McGee, 22, said in a telephone interview. "So I got to take advantage of it and make sure that no one is disappointed."
McGee has not been added to the 34-man national team roster -- which includes Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony and is in contention for the 2012 London Olympics -- but he does have an outside shot at making the final cut for Turkey with the scarcity of big men available.
The U.S. team is already limited. All 12 members of the 2008 Olympic gold medal-winning team declined invitations to compete in this summer's world championships -- including front-court players Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer. And, in the past week, the New York Knicks forced Amare Stoudemire to back out because they couldn't insure his surgically repaired right knee, Phoenix center Robin Lopez had to pull out with a back injury and Golden State forward David Lee dislocated his right index finger on the first day of practice.
"It definitely helps my chance, but I'm still going to play as if they are there," McGee said of the other front-court players.
McGee was planning on heading to Los Angeles after summer league before his agent, B.J. Armstrong, informed him that USA Basketball wanted him to try out for the team. "They just want everybody to come out here and play hard and they'll select who they want to select," he said. "I just feel more confident and more aggressive than I was the past two summers."
The remaining 19 players auditioning for the team -- which is headlined by District native Kevin Durant and includes all-stars Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo -- will play an intrasquad exhibition Saturday at Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV. There will be another minicamp in three weeks in New York, where the final roster will be set.
McGee is competing for a spot against Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom, New Jersey center Brook Lopez, Minnesota forward Kevin Love and Dallas center Tyson Chandler. "Well, he's here, he's practicing and certainly he has a shot," Colangelo said of McGee. "And I think, when we go to New York, that will probably have to be one of the areas that we have to make a decision on that might come later rather than sooner. And that's on the bigs."
Mike Krzyzewski, the coach of the U.S. team, did not want to evaluate individual players this early on, but said this week that McGee has "done a good job."
"He's a shot-blocker. He protects the basket really well and he's seven feet tall," the Duke men's basketball coach said. "He brings more height, jumping ability and shot-blocking."
McGee is the least accomplished player in Las Vegas this week. He has averaged 6.5 points with 4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while starting just 33 games in his first two seasons in Washington. McGee didn't enter the regular rotation, let alone the starting lineup, with the Wizards last season until after Brendan Haywood was dealt to Dallas at the trade deadline.
Although he finished the year as a high-energy reserve, McGee has showed considerable growth since the end of the regular season. He added about seven pounds of muscle and now stands 7 feet 1 1/4 inches after growing another inch. In four summer league games for the Wizards, all wins, McGee averaged 19.5 points and 9.3 rebounds and had several highlight plays -- a rock-the-cradle fast-break dunk, an incredible one-handed jam over New Orleans forward Kyle Hines in which he was so high he felt "like the rim was at my waist" and a nifty behind-the-back dribble and driving layup that continues to surprise him.
"I definitely wasn't planning to go behind the back," McGee said. "I'm glad it went in, because I know I would've been taken out if I would've missed it."
McGee also formed a nice chemistry with the Wizards No. 1 overall pick John Wall, who wasn't shy about looking to McGee for alley-oop lobs and keeping him involved in the offense. "It's a great opportunity for both of us, for him to get exposure as an assist player and not just a scorer, and for me to get opportune shots and become more of a consistent player," McGee said. "So both of us together is a great combination."
Wall was not invited to try out for the U.S. team.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said the greatest improvement he saw in McGee wasn't just his sustained intensity and consistency, but his patience.
"I think the experience of last year really helped him," Grunfeld said. "He's slowed his game down. He's taking his time. He's picking his spots and he's showing that he's a great athlete, obviously, but he's letting the game come to him more and he's not in a hurry to do things, as he was before. He's improved his footwork and now he has to transfer what he's doing with USA Basketball into the regular season."
McGee still has work to do with Team USA, an experience that he said has not been overwhelming despite the talent surrounding him. "I never was a player or person to be a fan to where I'm like, 'I'm in awe,' " he said. "I don't really model myself after anybody. I'm really just trying to come into my own and become my own player."