After risky trade, Nuggets try to turn McGee from enigma into force
Patience is a must with big men; they tend to develop later, and some not at all
Denver is banking on JaVale McGee's maturation after acquiring him for Nene
Centers Tyson Chandler and Andrew Bynum have blossomed after early struggles
In the fifth season of his NBA career, Tyson Chandler came off the bench for the Chicago Bulls, scored 5.3 points per game, shot 50.3 percent from the free-throw line and was booed regularly at the United Center. Afterward, he was exiled to New Orleans, where in an exhibition game he grabbed an offensive rebound next to the basket and passed it back to the perimeter. Former Hornets coach Byron Scott called timeout to remind the 7-foot-1 center that he could dunk. When Chandler arrived in Dallas last season, it was the second time he had been traded in two years, with two other deals falling through because of various injuries to his left foot.
"The hardest thing in the world to find is a 7-footer with talent," said Mavericks president Donnie Nelson, explaining the move in his office last winter. "You have to remember that a big man's NBA clock is different. They develop later. They get comfortable in their skin later. When you draft a young person of size, they need more time than others to get comfortable with themselves. Sometimes, it doesn't all kick in until 27 or so."
The Mavericks acquired Chandler shortly after re-signing center Brendan Haywood and they really had no idea which one would emerge and which one would fade. Such is the unpredictable nature of evaluating and developing behemoths. You never know who will make it or when. At 28, after 10 years in the NBA, Chandler was the starting center and defensive leader for the Mavs when they toppled the Heat to capture their first championship. Dirk Nowitzki hailed him as a team MVP. The Knicks awarded him with a four-year, $55.4 million free-agent contract. Executives from Chicago to New Orleans to Charlotte -- all of Chandler's previous stops -- were reminded of the danger that exists when giving up on a giant who can jump.
I featured JaVale McGee in last week's Sports Illustrated, another 7-foot pterodactyl, who has contributed as many bloopers as highlights in his pockmarked four-year career. The Nuggets acquired McGee from the Wizards at the trading deadline for Nene, their starting center of the past six seasons, whom they signed to a five-year, $65 million contract in December. The Nuggets knew what Nene would provide them in return -- between 13 and 15 points, between seven and eight rebounds, along with some injuries -- while they were as mystified by McGee as those who routinely ridicule him.
The Nuggets were alarmed to learn that McGee walks with a constant slouch, sets up differently for every free throw he attempts, posts up with his back instead of his legs and positions himself so deep in the post that he often has to shoot from behind the glass. But they were seduced by his 7-6 wingspan, 31˝-inch vertical leap and hands that coaches compare to the Incredible Hulk's. Most important, McGee is 24, still learning to use a body that his mother says only stopped growing last year.
Big men require patience, for reasons both physical and psychological. "Go to any nursery school," Nuggets assistant coach Melvin Hunt said, "and you'll see how the tall kids hunch over to fit in." They find refuge on the basketball court, but often end up standing around, while guards handle the ball and dictate the action. "The game is not friendly to the big guy," Nuggets coach George Karl said. Some eventually find their place. Most search forever.
Choosing McGee over Nene -- staggering potential over steady production -- seems like a terrible risk. But it's the kind of gamble the Lakers made in 2005, when they drafted center Andrew Bynum 10th overall. The Lakers, who end up in the lottery only every decade or so, used their pick on a doughy 17-year-old who never finished a full high school season, never led his team in scoring and sat in the stands at Madison Square Garden for the draft because he wasn't invited to the green room. A high school student who played against Bynum approached Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and said: "I played against Andrew Bynum in AAU and he wasn't very good. What do you see in him?"
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, hired by the Lakers to tutor Bynum, met a project who had no post moves, didn't know he should jump to block shots and wore socks in the shower because he couldn't find shower shoes that fit him. Abdul-Jabbar spent two years with Bynum, working with him after practice, sitting with him during games and watching tape at each other's houses. Bynum is now an All-Star, and last Wednesday in San Antonio, he pulled down 30 rebounds, the most by a Laker since Abdul-Jabbar in 1978.
Bynum was a blank slate when he landed in L.A. -- "We didn't have to unlearn any bad habits," Abdul-Jabbar said, "because he didn't have any habits" -- while McGee's canvas includes both bright spots and smudges. He is averaging 11.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 25.9 minutes this season, not far from Bynum at the same stage. But Bynum incubated on the bench for the Lakers while McGee stumbled around the paint for the Wizards. Though McGee's numbers have dwindled in Denver, the slippage might actually be a sign of progress. He has finally found a team that doesn't need to use him so often. The Nuggets can afford to teach.
They are one of the few NBA franchises not starved for size. When Denver sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks last year, 7-foot centers Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos were seen as throw-ins to an already-generous package. Mozgov and Koufos still won't pass for Bynum and Chandler, but they are chipping in a combined 10.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Their presence, as well as their improvement, emboldened the Nuggets to take a chance on McGee.
"He can do things nobody in this league can do," Hunt said. "But there are some fundamental things that still seem so new."
McGee appears at home in Denver's open offense, selfless locker room and renowned player development system. But he will be a restricted free agent after the season and the Nuggets must decide whether to sign him long term or let him leave and wind up with nothing for Nene. They must project whether a 24-year-old enigma will become a 28-year-old anchor or another oversized afterthought. Chandler made the metamorphosis, dedicating himself to a specific role, protecting the rim on defense and attacking it on pick-and-rolls. He is shooting a league-leading 67.4 percent this season.
The Mavericks knew Chandler embraced his niche. The Nuggets, after only a month, are still trying to peg McGee. Coaches say he likes to work and wants to excel. Club officials say they hope to keep him. They think he will realize the potential. But they cannot be sure of anything, except that another organization will make McGee a colossal offer this summer and they will be forced to match, raising the ante even higher on a gamble that could go either way.