Taken with the 18th overall pick in 2008 by the Washington Wizards, McGee was even given the nickname (by his agent, natch) "The Big Secret". He's shown equal flashes of brilliance and insanity, his good play as much serendipity as it is the verisimilitude of all our hopes for him. While McGee's fellow draftees like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Roy Hibbert have achieved NBA stardom, he's still fighting to prove himself.
The Denver Nuggets have now given him the biggest opportunity of his young career to do so.
When Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly opted to trade Kosta Koufos, with full knowledge that Timofey Mozgov wasn't a sure roster signing, it was a direct statement to McGee that the starting center job is his. There were rumblings that a big reason for Karl's ouster (among at least 39 others) was his reluctance to give significant time to JaVale, who played just 18 minutes per game in backup role to Koufos. He didn't get his first start with the Nuggets last season until Game 5 of the playoffs against the Warriors, where he scored 10 points, collected 8 boards, stuffed 3 shots and had 1 steal, though he did turn the ball over four times and committed three fouls. The Nuggets won that game.
The narrative around JaVale is that he has all the physical tools to succeed but lacks the mental focus, I believe that is a disservice to JaVale. "People portray him as a goofball," says teammate Kenneth Faried, "but he's actually a really intelligent guy." For his part, he acknowledges that much of the image that he's cultivated was due to the dysfunctional culture on the Wizards team that drafted him: "There's definitely more motivation here [in Denver] than there was in Washington." The comparative stability of the Nuggets as a team and a fat contract inked should help his development further, and hiring Brian Shaw - who is, by most accounts, a great "Xs and Os" guy, in addition to being excellent at relating to younger players - will be another boost.
At 25 years-old, JaVale has accrued enough experience in the NBA to be considered an experienced veteran. He's also now had back-to-back playoff experience for the first time in his career, and the intensity required to succeed in the NBA's second season. He should know the level of play and commitment to winning that will be expected of him as the starting center for this Nuggets team. The absolute worst thing that could happen is for JaVale to get comfortable and start taking days off - but I don't expect that to happen.
With only Mozgov backing him up, JaVale's game will be highlighted on this Nuggets team all season long, for better or for worse. I expect him to get at least 25 minutes per game, especially since he's now had a significant period of time to get his exercise induced asthma under control with athletic trainer Jim Gillen and relentless workouts with strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess. While I hope he can minimize the "silly stuff" that has so strongly colored his perception around the NBA, in a way, I don't want him to.
Every time I watch JaVale make a strange basketball play, I never find myself thinking, "Oh, JaVale doesn't care, he's just screwing around." Instead, I look at a guy who finds a way to hustle every time, on every possession, in his own unique way. Do I want JaVale tossing himself alley-oops off the backboard on a regular basis? Not really. Yet what others see only as silliness I see as effort from a man with some of the most remarkable physical gifts the world has ever seen, gradually learning how to put them all together:
With a wingspan wider than his height, JaVale is still growing in both the literal and figurative sense. Even in the short time that he's been in Denver, I've noted his improvement. His turnovers are down, his fouls are down, and he's taking and making better shots. He's becoming a better human in general.
This coming season is JaVale's chance to prove to the rest of the NBA and the haters that he's not just the punchline to all of Shaq's banal comments. He's worked hard and the organization has shown its faith in his desire to be the player we all know he can be. Now, after being nothing more than amusing joke, he's got the chance.
Go get it, big fella.