EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

JaVale McGee fills a Suns need, fits in with hard-working group

Aug 3, 2021, 5:28 PM
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 25: JaVale McGee #11 of the United States in action during the USA V France bas...
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 25: JaVale McGee #11 of the United States in action during the USA V France basketball preliminary round match at the Saitama Super Arena at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Star in your role. It’s one of the oldest cliches in sports, one that new Phoenix Suns center JaVale McGee used to turn around his career.

It doesn’t sound like that was his main thought process, though.

McGee wanted to move past being known as the guy who goofs up, the player who made Shaquille O’Neal’s “Shaqtin’ A Fool” segment on TNT’s Inside the NBA a hit.

McGee was quickly reaching the decade marker of his NBA career in the late 2010s as an often injured,  rarely consistent and uber-athletic 7-footer. He hadn’t quite figured out his niche in the NBA.

A contending Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016 took a shot on him, and it paid off big-time, with McGee reinventing himself as a traditional throwback center that was a key fixture on two title teams.

“This has been somewhat of a redemption season,” McGee told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears during that first playoff run in 2017. “This has been a great opportunity and platform to show what I have and to help this team.”

That platform allowed McGee to essentially start his career when it could have ended. He developed a reputation as one of the league’s better backup 5s, along with being a gem of a personality to have around the locker room.

He took that to Los Angeles two years later, winning his third championship with the Lakers in 2020.

Five years after going to Golden State, McGee lands with the Suns on a one-year deal worth $5 million, according to Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes.

Over the past decade as shooting, passing, ball-handling and defensive versatility become more important at the center position, teams still need a player like McGee that protects the rim, blocks shots, rebounds, sets good screens and finishes everything inside.

McGee will provide a fluid alternative to Deandre Ayton, as everything McGee does is part of what Ayton got much better at while learning how to master his smaller role last season.

The 33-year-old McGee is one of the better defensive presences in the league.

While McGee is not the quickest laterally, especially at this age, his length is absurd and allows him to cover immense ground. That way, he can play a bit higher of a drop coverage for ball screens and not be a relentless target for offenses.

This is reinforced by the hilarious pattern of guards thinking they’ve got a shooting angle on McGee once they arrive around the elbow with the big man on them. But McGee has solid fundamentals, doesn’t overcommit and has a great feel for letting the ball-handler guide him where he needs to go before reacting to the shot.

Check out this sequence of cutting off the drive, reading the ball-handler to deny the pass before coming across the lane to engulf a floater.

That’s championship-level defense showing and why that type of experience matters.

McGee is a solid offensive rebounder for a center at 1.9 a night over his career of averaging 17.1 minutes per game. Prior to last season, McGee had four straight years of shooting 70% or better at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, and should see that 66% mark across two teams last year go back up in a defined role.

Best of all, McGee is going to fit right in with what the Suns do.

Now, I know you might not be quick to jump on board with me on that last point, because McGee is still fighting that aforementioned perception.

When the Suns swept the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, some scoffed when Haynes reported McGee was one of the Nuggets to step up in the locker room and say it was unacceptable with the way Phoenix was beating them.

But you can bet your bottom dollar Chris Paul was not one to scoff.

Instead, according to Haynes, Paul noticed McGee working hard in Game 2’s garbage time when the result was already set. He praised him after the buzzer for doing that.

McGee talked to Spears back in 2017 about his mentality and work rate on the floor.

“This is all I know,” McGee said. “I don’t know what else to do, but to keep working hard and keep playing basketball. I had people in my circle having worse feelings than me of what my future will be. I’m such an optimist. I don’t look at stuff [negatively]. I was definitely on my own side.”

Yep, that’s the Suns’ type of guy alright.

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