JaVale McGee has gone a long way toward shedding the persona he got from “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” the TV blooper segment on which he held residency for years. Coming off consecutive NBA titles with Golden State, the 7-footer is currently logging career highs in points and blocks per game with the Lakers while serving as a full-time starter for the first time since 2011-12. Not bad considering the collective confusion when he agreed to a deal to join LeBron James in Los Angeles.
But for all the improvement he’s shown as a mainstay in this lineup, the 30-year-old still has an Achilles’ heel when it comes to his defense: McGee remains the league’s supreme goaltender.
As of Wednesday, McGee had been called for goaltending an NBA-high 13 times, nearly twice as many as Orlando rookie Mo Bamba, who ranks second in the league with seven violations. The Knicks, who also have 13 goaltending violations, are the only team that’s been called as many times as McGee himself, according to PBP Stats, which tracks a wide array of advanced NBA statistics. But this is nothing new for McGee: Since his rookie year, he has somehow managed to lead the NBA in goaltending violations per 100 possessions in each of the eight seasons in which he logged at least 400 minutes of playing time.
With 214 goaltends in his career,1 including one season when he logged a league-high 55, there have obviously been some true head-scratchers. One violation in 2012 was particularly egregious: The ball was in clear, undeniable descent before McGee launched it, volleyball-style, into the stands 25 or so feet in the air.
Puzzling as they might be from time to time for his coaches, the goaltending calls probably aren’t that big of a deal. Getting called for something that costs his club 2 points — 2 points they might have surrendered anyway — is arguably small potatoes compared with the upside of blocking a shot. And that’s likely even more true of McGee, who this year has blocked 5.3 shots for every goaltending violation.
But McGee’s willingness to lunge at nearly every shot attempt the way a cat flails at a laser pointer can cost his team in other ways. His block attempts often hurt the Laker defense more than if he had simply stayed on the ground. Take a late October game against the Spurs, when McGee committed three shooting fouls — resulting in seven San Antonio free throw attempts in a 1-point defeat — that stemmed from him ramming into jump-shooters. Twice, LaMarcus Aldridge pump-faked McGee into the air, knowing his constant tendency to go for blocks. (DeMar DeRozan did the same thing to McGee when the Lakers visited San Antonio.) Over the past two seasons, McGee has posted the second-highest foul rate when it comes to big men bumping into jump-shooters, according to data from Second Spectrum.2
While McGee may not have the greatest on-court instincts, the reason he attempts to block so many shots is simple: He thinks he’s capable of cleanly blocking them all. He’s highly athletic — remember the dunk contest in which he jammed on two side-by-side rims at the same time? — and at one point McGee owned the largest wingspan in the entire league, at more than 7-foot-6.
“That’s something [the referees are] not used to seeing,” McGee said of a particularly ridiculous block, when he caught the ball with one hand — and appeared to do so cleanly — but was whistled for goaltending anyway.
“I think he tries to be spectacular,” then-Nuggets coach George Karl said in 2013 when asked about McGee’s game. “Basketball is a game of possession after possession of doing things the right way, doing your job and letting the spectacular come. I think JaVale tries to find the spectacular and forces the spectacular when if … you just let us orchestrate the game, something big-time will happen.”
Another prolific rim protector, Tyson Chandler, sized up McGee’s game nearly eight years ago in a post from a Wizards blog. Chandler presciently said the then-Wizards center needed “to understand how he can be effective,” and that he would learn that by playing with more established veterans. McGee gained that experience with Golden State — and now Chandler is backing up McGee with the Lakers.
McGee has been a force this season. He’s been a top-10 rim protector3 so far, holding opponents more than 10 points beneath their averages from inside of 6 feet, according to NBA Advanced Stats. In large part because of their play at center, the Lakers rank fifth in the league in opponent field-goal percentage inside 3 feet and ninth in overall defensive efficiency. And while there were once questions about McGee’s basic fundamentals, those concerns have largely evaporated. Just look at last year’s NBA Finals, when McGee played incredibly solid defense after being switched onto LeBron.
What will be worth watching on Thursday, when the Lakers play foul-drawing maestro James Harden and the Rockets, and this postseason4 is whether McGee can avoid being baited by fakes. If savvy teams like the Spurs already know to test his ability to stay on the ground, it’s almost a given that other teams will try it in a series.
In a way, the key to the Lakers rising to become true contenders could very well be based on McGee’s ability to stay grounded on defense.
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