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Nevada coach Mark Fox spotted JaVale at an AAU tournament in Indianapolis, where the best teams played in high school gyms. JaVale's team was in an elementary school across town. He scored two points in the only game Fox saw. "So you don't want him?" an assistant asked. "No," said Fox, now at Georgia. "I'd take him tomorrow." McGee spent just two seasons at Nevada before the Wizards drafted him 18th in 2008. But for someone who attended four high schools in four years and has already played for five NBA coaches, his time in Reno was as stable as life has ever been.
McGee does not say much—a Nevada assistant rejoiced when he learned that McGee knew his name—but when he does speak, it tends to be in unfortunate sound bites. In January, after Wizards coach Flip Saunders scolded him for throwing an alley-oop to himself while trailing by six points, McGee said: "Apparently, if you get a fast break and throw it off the backboard in the third quarter, and you're 1--11, you're not supposed to do stuff like that." Saunders was fired a week later and replaced by Randy Wittman, who benched McGee for fouling a three-point shooter with one second left in the first half. Asked if he knew why he was punished, McGee said, "I can't say I do, but I'm sure I'll figure it out sooner or later." His last shot with the Wizards was a missed alley-oop, and on his way back down the court he plowed into Mavericks center Brendan Haywood. The Wizards, tired of McGee's follies, shipped him to Denver two days later and sent Young to Los Angeles. The Wizards' defense improved dramatically and immediately.
There's more to McGee than he lets on. He writes music. He creates clever comedy sketches featuring his alter ego, Pierre McDunk. (He has a tattoo of a mustache on his index finger, which he puts over his lip when he's in character.) He is a techie with five iPads, six laptops, two desktop computers and all the latest software. When friends and family have computer problems, they call JaVale. Nuggets officials watched the bloopers but viewed them in a different way. Sure, McGee ran back on defense while his team had the ball, but at least he ran back on defense. And sure, he missed a free throw line dunk, but at least he wasn't afraid to fail.
McGee's intentions are sometimes misunderstood. When Clippers forward Kenyon Martin taunted him for attempting a skyhook in a Las Vegas pro-am league game—"He's shooting the ball like he's Kareem!" Martin bellowed—he didn't know McGee had been working all summer with UCLA assistant Scott Garson, studying tape of Abdul-Jabbar on the video kiosks in the school's Hall of Fame. When broadcasters rail on McGee for saluting after dunks ("Knucklehead!" one opponent's play-by-play man called him), they forget the gesture was born when McGee saluted President Obama in the stands during a game.
The day McGee arrived in Denver, general manager Masai Ujiri told him, "Age 18 to 23 is over. Think about 24 to 30 now." Ujiri flips through his iPad, each screen a chart comparing McGee with other NBA centers at a similar stage. The charts are a reminder of the patience required to develop big men. When All-Star center Andrew Bynum was in his fourth season, he averaged 14.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, numbers not so different from McGee's. And Bynum spent all those years with the Lakers, an organization that was able to keep him on the bench and tutor him.
The Nuggets have a way of making players better, from Danilo Gallinari to Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith to Dahntay Jones, and now they are sculpting a 7-foot tower of clay. "As far as raw talent, he's the elite of the elite," Hunt says. "He can do things nobody in this league can do. But there are some fundamental things that still seem so new. It's like a piano prodigy who never learned to play Chopsticks. He just went straight to Beethoven."
McGee's posture is perpetually slouched. He posts up with his back instead of his legs. He positions himself on the low block, so deep that he occasionally shoots from behind the backboard. The first time Hunt asked McGee to take foul shots, he lined up with his feet spread apart. The next time his feet were together. The time after that they were over the line. McGee and Hunt go to every game 40 minutes before anyone else to work on post position (closer to the mid-block), free throw setup (feet apart, right arm positioned over the nail in the middle of the line) and other basics. Hunt beamed when McGee scored the winning basket on a put-back dunk in his Denver debut, waiting in midair for the ball to clear the cylinder so he could avoid goaltending. On Deadspin a glowing post appeared under the headline: JAVALE MCGEE DOES JAVALE MCGEE THING, WINS GAME FOR NUGGETS IN HIS DEBUT, BECAUSE JAVALE MCGEE IS THE BEST.
McGee's performance in Denver has been as inconsistent as ever, but the organization seems to agree with him. He marvels that players pass to one another. A trainer keeps McGee's inhaler on the bench, and when he is ready to check in, he takes two puffs. Something spectacular is about to happen. Last Friday against the Suns, it was an air-balled hook shot, followed by a furious dunk that shook the stanchion for a solid 20 seconds. This month represents a final audition for McGee, who will be a restricted free agent after the season. In a league starved for size, where teams still find a way to pay Kwame Brown $7 million, McGee will be in demand.
Pamela used to sit in the second row at every Wizards game, but she has no plans to move to Denver. She says her boy is a man now, even if he just sprouted his first real mustache last year. Pamela is cancer-free, working as a real estate agent in Northern Virginia and visiting her daughter every three months. Imani Stafford is a 6'7" senior at Windward High in Los Angeles, and she is committed to Texas for next fall. She, too, can jam.
The day after last year's dunk contest in L.A., JaVale called his mother at 8 a.m. and told her he wanted to go to church. Pamela was exhausted, with only five hours sleep, and surprised. But she knew just the place. During the sermon at Faithful Central Bible, JaVale looked over at his mom, tears streaking her cheeks. "Why are you crying?" he asked. There, for the first time, Pamela told him about the clinic and the beach and the reason she cannot get all that upset about alley-oops gone awry. "For me," she told her son, "you've been such a blessing."