Wizards' JaVale McGee set for breakout year

Wizards guard John Wall, right, goes up for a shot as teammate JaVale McGee, left, looks on.
Wizards guard John Wall, right, goes up for a shot as teammate JaVale McGee, left, looks on. (AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 12:47 AM

The sight of JaVale McGee hopping up and down, kicking his feet out and effortlessly pulling off a riverdance after practice on Friday may have been surprising to those who aren't aware that McGee is far from rhythmically challenged.

Earlier this week, Washington Wizards teammate Al Thornton said that if he had to pick the best dancer on the team it might be "a tossup" between McGee and No. 1 overall pick John Wall, whose reputation for dancing preceded his arrival in Washington.

"I'm saying, you should see him, the boy can get down," Thornton said with a laugh of McGee. "For a 7-footer, he can go."

Thornton may have been discussing McGee's skills on the dance floor, but it was also an apt description of what the 7-foot-1 center does on the basketball court, where his speed, dexterity and leaping ability often go against what most would expect from a player his size.

McGee engaged in a post-practice slam-dunk contest with rookies Wall and Kevin Seraphin on Friday and effectively ended the competition when he slapped the backboard with his left hand, twirled around and dunked with his right hand. He is probably one of the few big men able to run the floor and spin out of pick-and-roll situations with the speedy Wall, who has found McGee for alley-oop dunks this week in training camp scrimmages at George Mason's Patriot Center with the same regularity he did in the Las Vegas summer league, where the two established an uncanny connection.

The Wizards were always aware of McGee's immense athletic gifts, but they are expecting more of the 22-year-old after he finished last season on a high note - following the trade deadline deal of Brendan Haywood - and parlayed a stellar performance in the summer league into a tryout with Team USA as it prepared for the world championships. And, for the first time in his career, McGee arrives in training camp as the favorite to emerge as the team's starting center.

"I feel like I'm a starter," said McGee, who added eight pounds in the offseason in order to prepare for the challenge of guarding opposing big men over the course of an 82-game season, his third in the NBA. "My mind-set is to come in, play as hard as I can and stay a starter, I guess. Trying to start off at the top and keep going up. I'm just expecting to have a better performance than the last two seasons, a more consistent performance."

The Wizards signed 6-11 Hilton Armstrong to push McGee in practice and add some stability to the front court. A former lottery pick entering his fifth season, Armstrong has said he would like to compete for the starting job. But while Armstrong has been one of the standouts in camp with his hustle and knowledge of the game, McGee has appeared to be a more of a patient player, willing to wait to get the ball in the right spots, not rushing shots as he did in the past, and focusing on attacking the glass for rebounds.

"I haven't decided," Coach Flip Saunders said when asked about the starting center position, "but I think [McGee is] a guy right now, who has solidified a lot of things that he's done. He's matured in what's expected of him. Definitely not nearly as wild. He's definitely much more disciplined, under control, as far as what he's trying to accomplish."

McGee was pulled from the starting lineup late last season when he struggled with foul trouble. But McGee made progress, especially after Saunders, confused by how someone so svelte could get fatigued so quickly, helped McGee discover he had athletic asthma last March. He said he noticed an immediate difference in his endurance after he began taking his asthma medication. "I'm starting to figure out what body exhaustion is and not being able to breathe is."

McGee also gained confidence during his training with the U.S. men's national team, as he was one of the 15 finalists for the 12-man roster. He was asked several times this week what he learned from that experience and said Team "USA wasn't really a teaching session, it was more of a know-what-you-have-to-do session. It wasn't really a skill-wise, getting better. It just made me a more mature player and it was great playing with those guys."

Saunders has spoken with McGee about becoming a better defensive rebounder this season, so that the team could exploit Wall's speed and get out more on the break. McGee said he is working on boxing out and establishing better positioning, because he knows Wall can and will find him.

"I know if I roll and he throws it up, I'm going to catch it, and if I roll, he's going to pass it. It's like instinct," McGee said. "Randy Foye knew how to get me the ball like that. Earl Boykins did, too. All the guards I played with did."

The Wizards showed their commitment to having McGee develop within the organization, and possibly become part of the young core with Wall, when they picked up the fourth-year option on his contract a few days before training camp.

"Very grateful," McGee said. "I'm just trying to make sure that the commitment that they have to the young guys isn't at a fault or in bad taste. I'm trying to make sure that we all live up to what they see in us."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company