JaVale McGee grew up around purple and gold, just not the specific forum blue and gold version the Los Angeles Lakers wear. As a child watching his mother play for the L.A. Sparks, he grew an appreciation for the true hues of L.A. basketball, something he expressed nostalgia for when realizing he’d get to wear the same colors with the Lakers this season.
“Playing in L.A. means so much to me, just because my mother played for USC and also the L.A. Sparks,” McGee said in a Lakers.com video. “That’s kind of crazy that I’ll play for the Lakers and she played for the Sparks, and we’re already the first son and mother to play in the NBA and WNBA.”
That McGee figures to play a prominent role at all in a league going increasingly smaller, much less for a team that means so much to him, is somewhat of an upset. At a listed 7’0, 270 pounds with little-to-no outside shooting touch, McGee is far from the standard center in the NBA today as teams continue to push players to play down a position to get as many long-range snipers on the floor as possible.
Even on defense, teams are beginning to prefer smaller, switchier fives that can stay in front of waterbug point guards, something McGee has never been known for. But while McGee knows that those types of skills aren’t his reputation, he has worked to improve in those areas.
“Being able to switch out onto guards and also being able to protect the rim, I just feel like it’s a big asset,” McGee said. ”Unfortunately the sit-back big is starting to dwindle out of the league, so as a vet you have to either get with what’s going on, or get left.”
He chose not to get left behind.
“I definitely decided these past two years to work on switching and being able to guard smaller guys off the dribble, so I just feel like I’ve definitely improved and gotten a lot better at that. It’s definitely important for this league that we’re in right now,” McGee said.
But even with those improvements, McGee will never be a high-minutes starter who can switch onto any player. However, no player for the veteran’s minimum should be expected to do so, and those weaknesses don’t make McGee without value.
Coming off of two championships with the Golden State Warriors, McGee showed he’s anything but the mindless caricature too many often-mean-spirited “Shaqtin a Fool” segments painted him as.
McGee showed he can shine when needed on the biggest postseason stage as long as he’s in the limited role that his skillset allows, and there are plenty of things he can bring to the table for the Lakers.
“I want to get the ball up the floor, and that’s my game. That’s my speed,” McGee said, adding that “just having an athletic center out there that can do all those things and have all those intangibles” is something he can bring.
When the Lakers do get the ball up the floor, or get McGee in a pick and roll, he’s proven that he can shine in those positions. McGee shot a very nice 69.9 percent within five feet of the rim last season on 153 attempts, and he knows where his bread is buttered, only taking 76 shots total outside of that small area.
He’s proven especially adept as a finisher in the pick and roll, scoring 1.41 points per play as a roll man out of the set. According to Synergy, that ranks in the 95th percentile in the NBA.
McGee also converted 100 percent of his alley-oops last season, and took 74 percent of his field goals without even a single dribble last year, per NBA.com, showing that he understands that he’s not going to be the handle of the spear or the person throwing it for the Lakers’ offense, but instead the tip that finishes the job.
Now, numbers like that are often heavily affected by the quality of a players’ pick and roll dance partners, and McGee might not have as many amazing ones in Los Angeles as he did with the Warriors, but he will be joining forces with one of the best in the league in LeBron James.
McGee’s savvy awareness of his own limitations will allow McGee to be the type of player who can thrive alongside James, who often knows his teammates’ strengths and weaknesses better than even they do. James will find McGee around the rim for lobs when he rolls hard or when defenders leave him to help on drivers.
Being that type of lob threat is why Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka thinks McGee can “change the geometry of the game” for the Lakers with his vertical spacing, something he noted upon McGee’s signing becoming official.
Those types of plays are something that have McGee thrilled at the prospect of teaming up with James, a man he faced down in the last two NBA Finals who he will now try to help put Los Angeles back on the basketball map.
”LeBron is a great player, a great leader,” McGee said. “We definitely all just need to come together and make it happen. Make this the most exciting city in the world.”
Getting the Lakers back to their status as the basketball capital of the world won’t be all on McGee’s shoulders, and if they climb the mountain top, he won’t get anything close to the lion’s share of the credit.
Still, McGee can help the Lakers get back there with both his play on the court and the veteran habits he can teach his young teammates off of it, and he’s excited for the opportunity to aid the franchise’s quest to recapture the city’s attention in the way it did when he was watching his mother play for the Sparks.
“There are just so many things that I’ve seen growing up about the legacy that the Lakers have, so being able to add to that would be amazing,” McGee said.
All quotes transcribed via the Lakers’ official Twitter account.