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The Lakers’ faith in JaVale McGee is paying off

JaVale McGee has been one of the few bright spots for the Lakers over the first weeks of the new season, and is proving why he deserves to be taken seriously.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Draped in a loose white t-shirt, navy board shorts and his legendary fanny pack, JaVale McGee strolled into the Thomas and Mack Center during a timeout in the middle of a Lakers game at Las Vegas Summer League this past July and was instantly showered with cheers.

The appearance, his first since inking a one-year, minimum deal with the Lakers, set the tone that the fanbase was ready for the McGee experience, and it was clear so was the front office.

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Lakers’ braintrust took what many believed was an unorthodox approach in rounding out their center depth after the departures of Brook Lopez and Julius Randle this summer.

Besides signing McGee, the team banked on production from third-year big Ivica Zubac (has tallied only seven minutes thus far) first-round pick Moe Wagner (has begun rehabbing an injury that has held him out of action) and has even experimented with playing Kyle Kuzma at center, which has generated lukewarm results at best.

Center is still considered the biggest weakness for the team, especially on defense, and the team’s front court depth is still in limbo. Still, it’s hard to be anything but ecstatic with McGee’s play thus far considering the low expectations for him prior to the season.

Last year, McGee was simply a cog of the Golden State Warriors’ match-up dependent front court rotation.

Averaging only 9.5 and 9.6 minutes in his two seasons with the NBA champions, McGee accepted and provided what was asked of him, but seemed ready to embrace a bigger role this past offseason — and the Lakers happily lined up to oblige him.

Agreeing to terms at 7:59 on July 1st, the Lakers seemingly had their eyes on McGee and were ready to make him the starter and anchor of their front court. This at the time seemed dubious at best given his previously limited roles, his conditioning and a lingering unfair perception of his skills in the media.

Yet after just a few weeks of the NBA season, McGee has not only lived up to the fanbase and team’s expectations thus far. He has exceeded them.

Listed at 7-feet tall with a 7’6” wingspan, McGee has displayed impressive functional defense with his rare combination of size and athleticism.

In the clip above of transition defense against the Houston Rockets, McGee showcased his quickness to both close the spatial gap and force P.J. Tucker off the 3-point line into the restricted area. He then is able to recover and block Clint Capela’s alley-oop attempt, secure the rebound, instantly toss it to Brandon Ingram and sprint back the other end.

That is a damn good sequence.

And despite the Lakers currently possessing the 23rd-worst defensive rating in the league, McGee has done a stellar job individually.

According to the NBA’s defensive tracking data, McGee is currently tied for second in blocks per game (3) and among starting centers has a better defended field goal percentage within six feet than Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Brook Lopez.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Lakers’ defensive issues at the moment are more perimeter oriented.

The team is actually a little better than average in defending at the rim, mostly due to McGee, but is getting scorched at the point of attack to allow the sixth most attempts at within four feet of the basket of any NBA team.

McGee’s on/off numbers in particular help paint the picture of how truly impactful he has been on defense.

Defensive rating measures how many points a team would give up per 100 possessions, and when McGee is on the floor, the Lakers have a defensive rating of 105.3 (would be the ninth-best defense in the league) and are a +7.9.

Yet when McGee is off, the team sports a dismal 121.7 defensive rating (would easily be the worst rate among all 30 teams) and has a -6.3 net rating according to Cleaning the Glass.

On the other side of the floor, McGee has proved to be just as valuable.

Offering the Lakers their first real vertical threat since Andrew Bynum, McGee has served as a fantastic lob target.

Currently posting the best true-shooting percentage (65.6 percent) of his career, McGee has devoured dishes from the Lakers’ assortment of playmakers, taking advantage of more traditional plodding fives in the process.

In the clip above, McGee shows off both nimbleness and good instincts in splitting the pick and roll defense (which is why he’s scoring 1.45 points per pick and roll possession, which ranks in the 81st percentile) and sliding past Mason Plumlee, which frees him for the immediate vertical outlet pass for the alley-oop. This was a non-existent aspect of the team’s offense last season.

Another area McGee is having a huge impact is in cleaning up misses. The Lakers are currently 10th in the league in points per miss (how many points a team scores per 100 misses) mostly in part to McGee’s effort and anticipation skills.

Here the Lakers’ have a 3-on-2 opportunity in transition, which when led by LeBron James typically leads to a basket. Yet, McGee does not give up on the play and out-sprints the rest of the San Antonio Spurs to clean up the miss.

By being both fantastic at reading the ball off the rim and simply by being so big and springy, McGee has gobbled up a ton of second chance points so far this season.

McGee is currently scoring 1.63 points per put-back possession, which is in the 100th percentile of the league per Synergy. In other words, the player that was the butt of so many jokes over the last decade is currently the most efficient player in the NBA in this category.

Although it’s very early, McGee has proven to be a vital part of this Lakers’ team and has smoothly handled the most minutes per game he’s averaged since the 2011-12 season.

Many made fun of the McGee signing when it initially happened, but his production thus far has been eye-opening. Whether or not he sustains this level of play throughout the season is still to be determined, but based on early returns, it is definitely time to start taking him seriously.

Statistics and Video provided by: NBA.com, Cleaningtheglass.com, and Synergy. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla