Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee's growth in the post hasn't been without pains

Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee is averaging career highs of 7.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and is second in the NBA in blocked shots at 2.9 per game.
Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee is averaging career highs of 7.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and is second in the NBA in blocked shots at 2.9 per game. (Nick Wass/associated Press)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:40 AM

The shot clock was winding down and the ball somehow ended up in the hands of JaVale McGee, just above the free-throw line, with the Washington Wizards holding a three-point lead with about three minutes left on Friday.

Instead of looking to get rid of the ball, the 7-foot McGee decided that it was better for him to take Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph off the dribble - a move that was perhaps perplexing to Randolph, McGee's teammates and coaches, and the more than 13,000 fans at Verizon Center.

McGee spun left, then tried to lose Randolph with a crossover dribble. He simply lost the ball.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr. - the son of the Olympic track star who has plenty of speed himself - scooped it up and took off for what he thought was going to be an easy fast-break layup. Conley easily split Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich down the floor, but a hustling McGee was there to chase down Conley and slap the shot against the backboard, saving his team and sparing himself from a potentially embarrassing end to his night.

"I said, JaVale, you had two plays of the game - one when you went crazy and made a mistake and then forgot about quickly and made an unbelievable block," Coach Flip Saunders said after the Wizards grinded out an 89-86 win against the Grizzlies.

The sequence served as the latest example of the challenge with McGee, an incredible athlete who can mix a horrific play with something spectacular in a matter of seconds.

But it also showed his willingness to make amends for his mistakes.

"I don't want to be the one you can put the blame on, you know what I mean," McGee said. "I felt like I messed up on one end, so I really had to make up for it on the other end. I just tried to run my hardest and go get it, and if it was a goaltend, it was a goaltend, but the effort would've shown that I was really trying to be out there and work hard."

McGee has had some frustrating swings through the first 11 games for the Wizards (4-7), as Saunders has made an example of the 22-year-old for repeated blunders. McGee is finally starting to get the message, as he has grabbed 31 rebounds over his past three games, including a season-high 12 rebounds against the Grizzles.

"We've been on his [rear] to rebound the basketball and he's made a conscious effort to rebound and be a presence," Saunders said as the Wizards prepare to face the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., on Sunday. "He made a couple of bonehead plays trying to do too much offensively, but he has to learn, you can't do those things. He's young. He's learning. The main thing, he's just got to play hard."

A walking highlight reel, McGee is capable of blocking a shot into the first row or making a whirling, windmill dunk in the open floor, but he can also lose focus on defense, or get overly aggressive on offense, attempting questionable drives and shots.

Saunders has asked him to provide "more substance over style" at the center position. He benched McGee for failing to box out Anderson Varejao on a free throw late in a loss to Cleveland, for letting Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson get uncontested layups in a loss to Charlotte, and for a series of missed assignments in Chicago, where McGee sat for the entire fourth quarter.

"It was really tough. I was on the bench, looking at shots, looking at layups, like I could've been there to contest those layups," said McGee, who is averaging career highs of 7.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and is second in the NBA in blocked shots at 2.9 per game. "They might not have been made baskets, if I was in there right now. I just got tired. I don't want nobody to tell me I'm not rebounding."

Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins said the Grizzlies knew coming in that McGee would do a "great job on the offensive glass" but they were unable to keep him from snaring six offensive rebounds. He had two huge rebound putbacks and secured the win when he watched Arenas flip a shot over Marc Gasol and Randolph in the final minute. With no one paying him any attention, McGee caught the carom, dunked, spun round the rim and then tapped his forehead and saluted the crowd. After playing a season-low 16 minutes against Charlotte on a night when the Wizards had fewer rebounds (30) than Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (31), McGee wrote on Twitter that he was "enrolling in K.Love's school of rebounding online."

He later said that he might have to sacrifice some blocked shots to get more rebounds: "I'm trying to be in the right position at every time, not jumping to block every shot. I've really just been trying to seal my man and get rebounds rather than just out-jump everybody. I haven't been able to get my seven-block games, but I've been able to be consistent and get my three blocks a game."

"JaVale does a great job of coming over everybody and tipping or dunking and anything around the rim. It's hard when you have a player like that," Gasol said.

His third block on Friday may have been surprising to some, since McGee had to cover a lot of ground to catch Conley. But McGee smiled and said, "People don't know that, but I'm pretty fast."

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