Wizards center JaVale McGee still contending for place on U.S. national team

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010; 12:25 AM

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. - Over the past month, JaVale McGee amazed his teammates on the U.S. men's basketball national team with his incredible athletic gifts. Chauncey Billups shook his head and laughed as he described how McGee was messing around during a break in a July practice and tapped the side of his head against the rim, or how he once leapt above the square on the backboard to catch an alley-oop dunk.

"Everybody was like 'Ooh, are you serious?' " Billups said of the Wizards' 7-foot-1 center.

Lamar Odom spoke of how, during a layup line, McGee stopped underneath the basket and made a windmill dunk off a two-foot jump. And Derrick Rose talked about McGee as if he were some creation from science and engineering.

"I've never seen anything like that," Rose said Friday as Team USA prepared to face France in an exhibition on Sunday.

But the reason McGee - who was cut after the team's first training session in Las Vegas and was brought back to train in New York only after New Jersey Nets center Brook Lopez backed out with mononucleosis - remains on the fringe to make the 12-man cut for the world championships in Turkey is because the 22-year-old remains a raw, unpolished, physical specimen.

USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo still describes McGee as "a babe in the woods" when it comes to the game, but selected him to try out for the team - despite McGee's scarce credentials in two seasons in Washington - because of his immense potential. In addition, injuries and attrition have limited frontcourt options.

McGee was invited to train with Team USA last summer as well, but Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he and Colangelo saw a different player last month during summer league play when McGee averaged 19.5 points and 9.3 rebounds.

"We were impressed with his ability to block shots, run, his extraordinary athletic ability. As we watched, we noticed, he's grown in the summer league - and it wasn't just because of John Wall, although that helped," Krzyzewski said.

And, for the first time, McGee acknowledged what else may have contributed to his improvement since the second half of last season after the Wizards traded Brendan Haywood to Dallas: He recently had asthma diagnosed.

For several years, McGee thought the fatigue and shortness of breath that accompanied his sprints up and down the floor were because of poor conditioning. Wizards Coach Flip Saunders suggested McGee get checked out, believing it was unusual for a player with McGee's light frame to get winded so quickly.

"It was a great relief, because I thought I wasn't in shape," McGee said. "I didn't even know I had asthma. Then I started taking the medicine and I was 10 times better. I remember one game, everybody was hurt and I played [46] minutes and I didn't go to my knees once and I amazed myself."

That McGee continues to hang on with Team USA remains amazing to some, but he is using this as an opportunity to improve as a defensive rebounder while taking advice from veterans such as Billups and Odom on the fundamentals. Billups described McGee as "a sponge" who "could be really special."

"He's not here by accident or mistake. He's one of the most athletic players I've ever seen in my life," said Odom, an 11-year NBA veteran who went over some individual low post drills with McGee during practice on Friday. "He's 7-1, got like a David Robinson build, springs off the floor real quick, goes over the rim. If he can just get his feel for the game together, he can have an impact on a team. Because the game is called basketball, not run and jump."

Since Team USA doesn't have to submit a final roster until Aug. 26 - two days before the world championships begin in Turkey - Colangelo and Krzyzewski both said they may take all 15 remaining players with them next week to Europe, where the U.S. team has exhibitions scheduled against Lithuania, Spain and Greece. The team already lost David Lee, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Amar'e Stoudemire since training began, and got another reminder about the delicate front line when Kevin Love was forced to miss practice after bruising his calf.

"He's shown a really good attitude and a desire to get better," Krzyzewski said. "So this whole experience for him, if he's not selected, he might travel and it still will help him. He's still learning the game. If he can learn the game along with that athletic ability, he can be really good."

McGee said he was disappointed about getting cut last month, but viewed it is a "stepping stone." He planned to continue his own workouts in Los Angeles, which included weightlifting, boxing for conditioning, and playing open gym. When he got the call from his agent about replacing Brook Lopez, McGee said, "I was ready to come back and prove that I deserve to stay."

By sticking around, McGee has a chance to become the third member of his family to earn a gold medal representing this country in basketball. He came across the Olympic gold medal his mother, Pam McGee, won in 1984 while rummaging through his grandmother's jewelry chest at age 12. And this summer, his little sister, Imani Stafford, won a gold medal at the under-17 girls world championships in France.

"I want to get my own," McGee said.

And by this time next year, McGee said he hopes people will have more to say about him than just his athleticism. "I feel I'm going to have a breakout season and it's going to be an eye-opener for a lot of people to see exactly who I am and how I play," McGee said. "I expect it to be a good season."

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