Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee has been defined by two things in his five-year career: his penchant for goofy plays and his extraordinary potential. At any moment, JaVale could run the wrong direction, or make one of the most blatant goaltending violations ever, or even just celebrate in a ridiculous way. Of course, he might also be one of the best players on the floor, or at least show enough to convince his team that he's worthy of a massive contract and on the brink of becoming a great player.
The results have been as mixed as ever this season. McGee still flashes that same potential, but he's also seen minor, but not insignificant, dips in his rebounding stats and shooting percentage compared to his marks from his 20 games with the Nuggets a season ago. He's also still making the same kinds of mistakes at both ends that have limited his development. That's limiting his playing time to only 19 minutes per game (down from last season, as well), in part because George Karl usually knows what he'll get when he plays Kosta Koufos, Kenneth Faried, and Timofey Mozgov. On the other hand, McGee isn't doing poorly — his 21.6 PER tops the roster. It's not a perfect stat, but it does suggest he's doing a lot of things right.
Nevertheless, everyone knows he can be better, and Karl wants to see him make those hoped-for strides towards more consistent play. But Karl may be going about it wrong, because he wants JaVale to be more like the player on the complete other end of the big-man spectrum: San Antonio Spurs star and sure thing Tim Duncan. From Michael Lee for The Washington Post (via Our Man Devine):
“I think he’s a tremendous talent. I think he’s an incredible, athletic, 7-1, whatever he is,” Nuggets Coach George Karl said of McGee. “For me, I just want him to be more consistent on the fundamental area of basketball and more than anything, I want him to be more committed to the concepts and philosophies and fundamentals of our team.” [...]
McGee declined to speak with reporters after the Nuggets held their morning shootaround in preparation of his first game against his former team. Karl’s message to McGee is similar to the same one he heard during his nearly four years in Washington.
“Probably simple and solid,” Karl said, when asked what he tells McGee most. “I think he tries to be spectacular. Basketball is a game of possession after possession of doing things the right way, doing your job and letting the spectacular. I think JaVale tries to find the spectacular and forces the spectacular when if you just let Andre Miller and Ty [Lawson], let us orchestrate the game, something big time will happen. But I just want him to be more Tim Duncan-like. I tell him I like Tim Duncan. I want Tim Duncan. That’s what I want.”
Oh, you like Tim Duncan? One of the most dependable and effective players in NBA history? Cool, I'm sure any player would have an easy time being like that.
It's become common to say that McGee has "limitless potential," but the fact of the matter is that he's been in the NBA for a while now and has given us a fairly good sense of what he is. He can improve, certainly, yet all improvement builds on what has come before it. That means that JaVale can never really be like Tim Duncan — he can only be a more consistent and less foolish version of JaVale McGee. He's always going to make a certain amount of silly plays and play with some inconsistency, because he's already proven that it's not especially easy for him to simply rid it from his game entirely.
I'm sure Karl knows this reality on some level, and he's probably only using Duncan as an example because he's the most obvious case of a very athletic and talented big man marrying those abilities to a supremely thoughtful playing style. On the other hand, Duncan has also been so effective that he's almost an impossible standard to aspire to. Poets aren't told to be more like Shakespeare or John Keats.
McGee is far from a lost cause, but if he's going to fulfill more of his potential it might be wise for everyone in the basketball world to adjust expectations downward. Players get better over their careers, but they don't turn into their polar opposites. JaVale is always going to be Javale — we must only hope that he becomes the best version of himself.