JaVale McGee had the hardest time resisting his instincts last season. McGee would grab a rebound or get a steal, see an open court ahead and suddenly, the kid who played point guard until his growth spurt would be set free.
He’d lower his head, ignore teammates and take off on a journey that rarely ended with the highlight reel dunk McGee so desired. His mad-dash dribbling displays were among the most frustrating aspects of McGee’s overall encouraging first full season as an NBA starting center, and Coach Flip Saunders has threatened to bench him the first time he forgets that he’s 7 feet 1 and goes rogue.
McGee has vowed those misguided jaunts have been tucked away, never to be seen again, and has worked on improving areas that take advantage of his physical gifts. As one of just seven players on the training camp roster with more than two years of experience, McGee is motivated to improve on a season in which he averaged 10.1 points and eight rebounds, and finished second in the league in total blocks (193).
“I’m more confident and more patient and feel like it’s definitely going to carry over this season,” said McGee, as he prepares to enter his fourth season. “I feel like I’m coming into my own as a leader. I don’t feel like I’m influenced by anybody, but I feel I’m definitely becoming more a leader. I came in as a rookie, and I was the only rookie. It’s definitely different now. I’m one of the older guys so I have to set an example.”
Through the first few days of training camp, McGee has tried to play more within himself, spending most of his time establishing position near the basket and spotting double-teams quickly enough to kick the ball back out for assists. Saunders has never held back his criticism of McGee, imploring the runner-up in the NBA slam dunk contest to show more substance over style. But he has noticed his efforts to play “winning basketball” during the evening scrimmages.
“What I like about him is, he’s trying to be very disciplined in his play. Not trying to do too many things that he can’t do. Has had more assists in two days than he had all of last year, probably. Which isn’t saying much, but he’s passing the ball,” Saunders said about McGee, who had 38 assists in 79 games last season. “I think the biggest thing with young players, they start to really make a development when they learn to play with a purpose and not just to play.”
McGee certainly has reason to play with a purpose this season, with him eligible for a contract extension and otherwise set for restricted free agency next summer.
The Wizards haven't had any formal discussions regarding an extension, according to a league source, but have until Jan. 25 to strike a deal before he enters the free agent market.
He started 75 games last season and if he can average at least 41 starts or 2000 minutes over two seasons, McGee could be eligible for a $900,000 raise on his qualifying offer under a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement.
“It definitely influences how well I perform this year,” McGee said of his contract season, “But I feel like even if I don’t perform well and I help the team to wins, I’m still a part of that and I still look good. My expectation is probably a double-double and over three blocks. Just trying to be a leader and lead the team to at least over a .500 season and hopefully the playoffs.”
His lengthy offseason regimen included swimming, boxing and running on the beaches and canyons in Los Angeles to increase his conditioning and endurance, which last season caused both physical and mental fatigue that contributed to the occasional lapses on defense and foul trouble. McGee also worked on developing a consistent go-to move in the low post, focusing entire workouts on taking jump hooks with both hands and not taking any jump shots. He has caught several easy lobs from John Wall and Shelvin Mack in practice, simply by roaming around the basket.
“There aren’t any plays for me outside, so if I expect to be a force on offense, I definitely have to be a better player on the block,” McGee said.
Andray Blatche is the only player on the Washington Wizards’ roster who has been with McGee since he was drafted and has noticed a difference in his approach. After Saunders gave Blatche a construction workers’ helmet to symbolize the hardest worker on Sunday, Blatche quickly handed it over to McGee, believing he deserved it.
“He’s finally starting to get it,” Blatche said.
McGee reacted to Blatche’s gesture with some humor. “Felt like it was staged or something,” he said with a laugh.
McGee’s playful side has also led to disapproval. Saunders said the YouTube video in which McGee and restricted free agent Nick Young ate spoonfuls on cinnamon was “not going to cut it,” but McGee offered a shrug in response.
“I saw those comments,” McGee said. “We had funny videos, but we also had videos where we’re giving book bags to kids and we’re giving out turkeys and going to schools. I don’t know, balancing maturity, immaturity, I don’t know how he wants me to do that. But it’s not really that serious.”
McGee won’t be able to completely contain his inner goofball, since he continues to post interesting jokes and comments on his Twitter account, @JaValeMcGee34. He also created a separate persona, whom he dubbed Pierre.
“That’s my alter ego. He’s arrogant, conceited,” he said. “All the bad things I shouldn’t be.”
Pierre isn’t going away, but will the Wizards see the return of a McGee that takes off on more coast-to-coast dribblefests? “Nah,” McGee said, matter-of-factly.