If LeBron James was taken out of the equation because of the role he’s always going to play on any team he’s on, JaVale McGee has almost inarguably been the best and most-important player for the Los Angeles Lakers thus far.
After the Lakers’ first win of the season, Luke Walton, James and McGee’s teammates had a ton of praise for their starting center (via Spectrum Sportsnet):
“He’s been really good. He’s anchoring what defense we have so far. He’s put out a lot of fires at the rim, but he plays hard and we ask him to play hard. He’s a big guy who’s sprinting the floor on one end and he’s rotating,” Walton told reporters. “In today’s NBA, to play the center spot, you’ve gotta be blitzing (Devin) Booker at one moment and then full rotate to another shooter in the corner the next moment.”
Walton is one zillion percent correct here. Of all players getting consistent minutes, McGee has the team’s highest net rating (how many points the team outscores or is outscored per 100 possessions with a player on the court). Of all players to have played in all four of the Lakers’ games, there’s quite the gap between McGee’s (8.5) and the next guy’s (Josh Hart, at 0.5).
LeBron recognizes McGee’s value, too, as he echoed Walton’s sentiments on Spectrum Sportsnet.
“He’s just so active man, it just starts with his defense. His ability to block shots, get out and run, beat the other bigs down the floor. We’re always looking for him,” James said. “He showed today he can knock down a three, knock down a mid-range jumper, got a lob, had some put-backs, so he did everything today.”
About those threes, though... Walton wasn’t exactly thrilled.
“JaVale and I had a talk about those threes, and even though he shot a good percentage in preseason and now the regular season, we need him going to the rim,” Walton said.
And this isn’t Walton disliking fun or thinking McGee is a bad shooter. His explanation actually makes a lot of sense.
“He’s the one that collapses defenses for us, and if he stands out there and shoots and we’ve got other guys out there as well, then we’re just playing around on the perimeter and that’s not who we are as a team,” Walton said.
All teams rely on balance, especially when traditional bigs are on the floor. Preferably speaking, either the defense doesn’t collapse in time and McGee gets an attempt right at the rim, or the defense does collapse and an open shooter is found. If McGee (or Johnathan Williams when he’s on the court) isn’t rolling hard to the rim, neither of those things can really happen.
Basketball geometry aside, though, the main takeaway is just how valuable McGee has been this season. That the Lakers were able to get him at the minimum is honestly insane, given his production to this point. His coach and teammates recognize this, so here’s hoping he can keep it up.