When the Los Angeles Lakers replaced starting center Brook Lopez with veteran big man JaVale McGee the reaction around the league was largely one of confusion.
After all, LeBron James was reportedly hoping to play with high-IQ players, and despite becoming a champion with the Golden State Warriors, McGee was known more for his appearances on “Shaqtin’ A Fool” than ability to play basketball.
With a reputation as a quirky character who couldn’t help but fail disastrously, McGee’s talent was routinely overlooked. He spent four seasons prior to signing with Los Angeles as a backup, averaging just 10 minutes per game.
While playing on championship teams with the Warriors brought back some credibility, playing a bit part wasn’t going to provide the opportunity he needed to prove his worth.
Enter the Lakers, who had a starting job available and a spotlight shining brighter than ever thanks to the arrival of James. McGee bet on himself, signing a one-year contract for the veteran’s minimum, and set out to prove everyone who doubted him wrong.
If he was ever going to shed the “Shaqtin’” label, this was his chance. It’s still early, but so far McGee has proven himself to be no joke.
As the Lakers’ starting center, McGee has used his mobility and athleticism to fly up and down the floor, keeping up with the mad-dash sprints in transition that the Lakers have come to rely on. He’s such a lob threat that defenders have to dive down to stop his rolls to the rim, which provides the Lakers’ perimeter players the space that they need to operate.
He may not stretch the floor out of the three-point line like Brook Lopez did for the Lakers last season (though McGee is 1-for-2 on threes), but he still manages to make cracks in opposing defenses that opportunistic attackers like Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma can slither through.
One of the most important traits for an NBA player is that they understand their own limitations, and McGee seems to have a keen sense of exactly what his strengths are. You won’t find him trying to take defenders off the dribble or pulling off a Dream Shake in the post.
Instead, he keeps things simple by setting screens with purpose and rolling hard to the rim, where his teammates find him for easy slams. McGee’s opportunistic rim runs have allowed him to score in double figures in every game this season except one.
On a team filled with passers like James, Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball, McGee is thriving as an efficient target man, landing in the 81st percentile on the offensive end according to Synergy.
As thrilling as McGee’s thunderous dunks can be, more importantly, he has quickly become a one-man no-fly zone on defense. McGee has always had a knack for rejecting shots, but his league-leading 3.3 blocks per game are still impressive.
In a league with all-time great blockers like Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis, McGee has forced everyone to take notice of his ability to deny attackers. Digging deeper, he has been a plus defender all over the floor, contesting shots both on the perimeter and at the rim.
On average, McGee’s presence lowers the shooting percentage of whoever he is guarding at the rim by just over six percent. For a team that thrives on running the fast break off of opponent’s misses, the Lakers’ offense benefits from McGee’s defensive brilliance.
Even more telling, their Defensive Rating with McGee on the floor is 101.2, but without him, it skyrockets to 118.4 (which is also why the argument for finding a true backup center is becoming stronger by the day).
The man who was something of an afterthought for most teams on the free agent market has quickly become absolutely indispensable for Los Angeles.
The Lakers took a lot of heat this summer for the roster that they have built around James, and perhaps some of that is justified. However, if McGee keeps playing at this level, he will easily be one of the best bargains in the league on a deal that pays him just $1.5 million this season.
Expect that salary to get a nice bump next summer when he again hits free agency. For years, McGee’s reputation as a clown persisted, but now that his talent is fully on display it looks like he will be the one having the last laugh after all.