The Golden State Warriors have acted out many familiar scenes during this year’s playoff run. Kevin Durant has crossed up big men en route to vicious slams, Draymond Green has continued to revolutionize rim protection, and Stephen Curry has danced his way to almost 30 points a night. But a bit player has elbowed his way into the spotlight, too: Warrior reserve center JaVale McGee.
In Golden State’s opening series against Portland, McGee was outstanding in his supporting role, chipping in 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 12 minutes per game. He also gave the Warriors a decided advantage over the Blazers when he was playing, contributing to a +48 scoring margin for the Warriors during his 48 minutes on the court. In Game 1, McGee stuffed Portland’s Damian Lillard to ignite a fast break, hustled down court to rebound a missed transition jumper, and set up Curry for a corner three that gave the Warriors the lead. The sequence was emblematic of McGee’s play during the series: exuberant and useful. You could describe McGee’s whole season like that. A player who was once derided as a laughingstock of the NBA is enjoying an unexpected breakout year.
In the offseason, McGee had to scratch and claw just to earn an NBA roster spot. After a slew of leg injuries limited the big man to only 62 regular-season appearances over the previous three seasons combined, McGee was waived by the Dallas Mavericks in July. He eventually accepted a non-guaranteed contract and a training-camp invitation to audition for Golden State’s final roster spot.
McGee’s image wasn’t helping his prospects, either. After years of unwanted attention on “Shaqtin’ A Fool” — the NBA’s blooper show hosted by Shaquille O’Neal — McGee was saddled with a nasty reputation as basketball’s court jester. Warriors coach Steve Kerr told The Washington Post that his view of McGee had been colored from afar — “he’s had the reputation of being flighty.” Speaking to the Mercury News earlier this season, McGee characterized the opinion held by many NBA fans more bluntly: “They think I’m a dumb person.”
Once in camp, however, he won over his teammates and coaches with a bevy of high-flying dunks and blocks and earned the 15th spot on the squad. Before a preseason game, Kerr told SFGate that he was optimistic about the player’s fit with Golden State: “He gives us something that we don’t have with our other centers, just with that ability to catch a lob and finish. I think he has the potential to help us. We’ll see how it all goes.” As it turns out, it has gone really well.
During the regular season, McGee led all NBA players1 in plus-minus per possession, with the Warriors edging their opponents by an average of 19.2 points for every 100 possessions he was on the court. This impressive stat stands in stark contrast to McGee’s career norms — he’s posted negative plus-minus numbers in nearly all of his previous seasons. In part, McGee’s statistics reflect the strength of his new team. He’s asked to play only about 10 minutes a night, and those minutes rarely come during clutch situations. Still, his plus-minus mark substantially surpassed the numbers of his more-renowned teammates: Curry (17.5), Durant (15.9), and Green (15.5), suggesting that he isn’t just an anonymous extra, either.
McGee has been spectacularly efficient with his shots, posting a career-high true shooting percentage of 64 percent this season. And even though he doesn’t play a lot, when he’s on the floor, he’s a big part of the Warriors offense. McGee was one of just 14 players — including superstars LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Durant and Curry — who combined 60+ percent true shooting with a 20+ percent usage rate this season.
Although some of it is a luxury of playing with his talented Warrior teammates, McGee’s improved efficiency is mainly the result of a more disciplined shot selection. Compare his shot chart from this season with the one from the 2012-13 season, when he played for a 57-win Denver Nuggets team. Note that with the Warriors, McGee is attempting nearly all of his shots from inside the paint; whereas with Denver, he regularly stepped away from the basket to shoot.
During the 2016-17 regular season, McGee took a career-high 78 percent of his shots at the rim. In 2012-13, rim shots accounted for only 65 percent of his total attempts.2 Similarly, just 3 percent of McGee’s field goals this season were attempted from outside of 10 feet, whereas these jumpers made up at least 10 percent of his shots in each of his previous campaigns. While McGee’s effectiveness at the rim this season (73 percent field-goal percentage) is basically unchanged from the past two seasons, his condensed shot distribution means that he’s more efficient overall.
The Warriors have several actions designed to get McGee near the rim. Most reliably they deploy a Curry-Green high pick-and-roll with McGee positioned at the edge of the lane. Curry’s dead-eye shooting tends to demand a double team in this situation, allowing him to slip a pass to Green around the free-throw line. From there, the Warriors gain a numerical advantage with only McGee’s defender remaining to stop Green’s marauding drive down the lane. The ultimate result is a lob to McGee and a slam dunk.
The Warriors also use a McGee-Curry ball screen up top. In this variation, McGee picks Curry’s defender and rolls hard to the rim, Curry slings the ball toward Green at the wing, and Green relays it to the cutting McGee for an alley-oop.
McGee gets dunks when he rolls to the basket after setting off-ball screens for Klay Thompson, too. He gets dunks when Andre Iguodala beats his man off the dribble. He gets dunks in transition. He gets dunks on putbacks. He gets all kinds of dunks, all the time. In fact, McGee led the league in dunks per 36 minutes this season.3
|PLAYER||TEAM||MIN. PLAYED||TOTAL||PER 36 MINUTES|
|8||Mason Plumlee||POR, DEN||2,148||131||2.2|
McGee’s dream season has been about more than just a string of dunks, though. With the encouragement of the Warriors coaches, he has distilled his game down to its essence. “The thing about it is I have to know my role, and my role isn’t to get post-up touches and stuff like that,” McGee told reporters after the playoff opener. “My role is to rebound, block shots and run the floor.”
McGee is providing a lift on defense, too. He’s tall, long and springy, which allows his teammates to funnel ball handlers in his direction. It’s a perfect responsibility for McGee, who is good at sloughing off his man in search of blocks. During the regular season, McGee contested shots at the fifth-highest rate in the NBA (0.5 contests per minute). One benefit of this McGee-centric Warriors defensive scheme is that his teammates — Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Green — each foul at a lower rate when he is on the court to back them up, saving them each an average of 0.6 fouls4 per 100 possessions.
Despite the seeming transformation, McGee told the Post that he hasn’t metamorphosed into some more-mature version of himself. “I’ve been the same goofy guy I’ve been this whole time,” he said. And there have been some goofy moments: missed dunks, behind-the-back turnovers, even one attempt to inbound the ball for the wrong team. But McGee told the Post that his new team recognized that he is also earnest: “They knew who I am and realized, underlying me laughing all the time, I’m actually working hard.” Indeed, many of McGee’s bloopers this season — and even his mishaps from his peak Shaqtin’ years — are errors of overzealous activity and effort.
In the opening round of the playoffs, the Trail Blazers were an undermanned and undersized team that offered McGee an ideal opportunity for success. The Western Conference semifinals provide a new challenge for McGee: the Utah Jazz and their likely soon-to-be All-NBA center Rudy Gobert. Gobert demands more attention from McGee on defense and makes it more difficult for McGee to find dunk opportunities on the other end. Indeed, McGee had a very quiet Game 1 against Utah, tallying just one dunk and one block in nine minutes. But I don’t expect that Gobert will be taking him lightly moving forward. McGee has opened eyes and shut mouths all season with his stellar play. And he has long since proved that he’s more than just a 7-foot punchline.
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