How well JaVale McGee has performed for the Los Angeles Lakers this season has done a lot to wipe away any remaining negative conceptions about him that NBA fans still held even after his strong run with the Golden State Warriors the last two years.
McGee is averaging 2.9 blocks per game this season (the second-best mark in the NBA behind Hassan Whiteside’s 3.1), and he’s firmly seized the Lakers’ starting center job while helping prop up a defense that now ranks 20th in the league after starting the season near the bottom.
But McGee wasn’t always able to shine this bright. As anyone who has followed the NBA closely for the last 10 years or so knows, earlier in his career, McGee’s bloopers became a favorite target of Shaquille O’Neal for his weekly round-up of NBA mistakes on “Shaqtin a Fool.” And it would seem that in addition to sullying the actually very thoughtful and smart McGee’s reputation among NBA fans, the frequent targeting on social media and TV actually affected the way McGee played, as he told Kyle Goon of the O.C. Register:
Always a sensitive soul, McGee retreated inward. He didn’t tell anyone, but playing basketball was no longer fun. Even routine plays felt like a test. He knew every mistake he made would get skewered. That fear paralyzed him and stunted his development. Every night, he felt like the court jester of the league, and he hated it.
“Just the access of people being able to put information out or show certain clips and s*** without a story behind it,” he said. “It would be a lowlight of you missing the layup, and now you’re like, ‘F***, I can’t miss any layups, I gotta do everything perfectly.’ Like overthinking things. It really affects, in turn, the way you play the game.”
McGee not being afraid anymore is obvious in the fearlessness with which he plays now. He’s flying around the paint for blocks, telling Lakers guards to toss the ball up anywhere around the rim so he can go get it for lob dunks, and even trying to flip in a few hook shots now and again.
Every so often McGee will miss wildly, or he’ll get dunked on or around, or he’ll fall to the floor due to his efforts, but the way he pops right back up again is evidence of how carefree he’s become as he’s gotten older and wiser while no longer letting the fear of getting captured making a mistake scare him.
McGee actually seemed to start to make that transformation with the Warriors — playing with a juggernaut during two title runs inspires confidence, after all — but freed to take on a larger role with the Lakers, McGee has shown he’s a lot more than his previous foibles and far greater than his “Shaqtin” past.
McGee is a genuinely talented and helpful NBA player, and one of the season’s coolest stories has been him getting to show the rest of the world how positive of an impact he can make when given the opportunity. He’s also vastly outperformed his veteran’s minimum contract to the point that a “Most Improved Player” award doesn’t seem totally out of reach.
There is still a long way to go before McGee could receive such honors, but being the duct tape holding the Lakers’ rotation together — and thriving in the role — should merit genuine consideration for some official recognition from the league. Barring that, hopefully McGee has at the very least shown Lakers fans and NBA observers as a whole how special he is when he’s put in a position to succeed.