Over the past few years, we've discussed Hakeem Olajuwon's very pricey coaching sessions on NBA post play with players ranging from LeBron James to Dwight Howard. Yet, while Hakeem's tutoring has produced positive results, those players also started out as established stars. As yet, Olajuwon has yet to tute someone who hasn't yet made an All-Star team.
His summer work with Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee, then, holds a great deal of interest. In addition to being a player who hasn't yet fulfilled most of his considerable potential, McGee is also seen as one of the NBA's great blank slates, potentially a perennial All-Star but a player who hasn't yet received much in the way of proper instruction.
Hakeem, for his part, sees the same level of promise. In fact, after working with JaVale recently, Olajuwon says that McGee should dominate the league. From Mark Berman for MyFoxHouston.com (via PBT):
"No question, I see him as another star," Olajuwon said in an interview with FOX 26 Sports. "That guy should dominate the league.
"He has tremendous talent. I give him all these moves and he can finish and he's already skilled. So now just show him how to use that skill to (get) to the next level." [...]
"The moves that we work on are not for a stiff big guy," Olajuwon said. "With him he's agile. The move flows. So I'm excited to see what he's going to do this year."
So is McGee. "There are some things that we already knew, but he has different tweaks to it," McGee said. "Then he has some stuff that you really didn't think about that he just throws out there that is amazing to see it."
It's very reasonable to expect that McGee will improve after these sessions. That seems to be the standard takeaway from working with Hakeem, if only because deciding to do so in the first place proves that players are committed to working on their post play. What's a little tougher to figure out is whether Olajuwon is making accurate claims about McGee's potential or setting him up for disappointment.
McGee does in fact have All-Star potential, and a few terrific performances for the Nuggets vs. the Lakers in the 2012 postseason proved as much. However, there's a big difference between being one of the best centers around and dominating the league. In the modern NBA, the former is actually a pretty easy mark to hit. Outside of Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, and a few others, centers no longer factor as major scorers. For instance, New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler — reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a key member of Team USA's gold medal team — can be an acknowledged force while averaging 11.3 points (on very great 67.9 percent shooting), 9.9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game. As long as a center plays top-level defense and rebounds, he can become identified as one of the best in the league.
JaVale isn't actually that far from that level, despite his maddening inconsistency. Statistically, he actually measures out pretty well. With the Nuggets, McGee averaged 10.3 ppg (61.2 percent from the field), 5.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 20.6 minutes. If he can keep his fouls down, score a little more, and become a more consistent defender instead of someone who mostly blocks shots, he will be one of the best centers in the league. Those are fairly attainable goals, even for someone known around the league as a bit of a fool.
There's a tendency to think of high-potential projects like McGee as boom-bust talents, but in order to boom those players still have to improve at familiar rates. The options for McGee aren't just making blooper reels or being a league-dominating star. It's perfectly fine if, for the time being, he focuses on expanding a few areas of his game and becoming one of the best centers in the league. The Hall of Fame can wait.