Nobody's fool: How JaVale McGee became essential to the NBA's best team

JaVale McGee has made a major impact off the bench for the Warriors against Portland. (AP)
JaVale McGee has made a major impact off the bench for the Warriors against Portland. (AP)

PORTLAND — After the Golden State Warriors’ optional practice here on Sunday morning, assistant coach Mike Brown took a seat in the locker room next to Kevin Durant to chat and watch some game film. It had been a long weekend, with Brown moving up to the head of the Warriors’ bench due to coach Steve Kerr’s absence, and Durant missing his second straight playoff game with a calf injury. Not to mention, the Warriors still needed one more win to finish off the Portland Trail Blazers in their first-round series.

“All of a sudden, I hear this singing from the shower,” Brown said, laughing. “And it’s not like a little, ‘Ohh ahh.’ I mean, it is loud! I turn to KD and I’m like, ‘KD, is he always like this?’ And KD smiles and goes, ‘Yeah, that dude is nuts.’”

The singing dude was JaVale McGee, the center who has gone from the verge of being out of league before the Warriors brought him into training camp to a legitimate standout for Golden State against the Blazers.

He’s a silly guy and doesn’t take himself too seriously, as evidenced by his singing and that rat-tail hairstyle that he keeps “just so people can keep talking to me about it.” Off the court, he pranks his teammates by printing up blankets that feature Draymond Green’s face, open-mouthed, deep in sleep.

When it comes to his game, though, McGee has just put his head down and done the work. He doesn’t display over-the-top celebrations after some of his craziest dunks. He sticks to a vegan diet, and over the summer, he was in the gym everyday, often by himself, working on his strength and stamina.

“I was doing conditioning every day,” McGee said. “I was going the hardest I ever went, to tell you the truth. I was lifting, gym, conditioning, weight room, every day, by myself. Like, most people, when they work out, they’re with two or three people. I was there by myself with my trainer.”

It is paying off. McGee is making the most of his first extended postseason action since 2013, averaging 11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in just 13 minutes per game through Golden State’s first three games. The Warriors have outscored the Blazers by 51 points in 39 minutes with the 7-footer on the floor through three games — the highest plus-minus on the team — and have been outscored by four points in the 105 minutes he’s been on the bench.

The ultra-athletic former Slam Dunk Contest participant is finding many ways to thrive with Golden State, from familiar feats like catching lobs for alley-oop dunks to more recently developed talents like playing disruptive pick-and-roll defense. McGee says that he feels that the Warriors are playing him the way he was supposed to play, and the way he was used in Denver: catching alley-oops and being in the paint.

The combination has him looking at home on the court … and, apparently, feeling comfortable enough to belt out songs in the locker room.

“This is a great system [for him]. It fits his skillset,” veteran Warriors forward David West said. “But we are just asking him to be solid defensively. I mean, obviously, he provides an element above the rim … I think just the environment is good for him. The types of guys he has around him are just keeping him confident and under control. And he’s able to take advantage of it.”

McGee has grown comfortable enough to be himself with his teammates and even the media covering him. After a December win over the New York Knicks, he showed up to the podium sporting Snapchat Spectacles and snacking on a cookie, and told media members that he was turning the tables and recording them instead.

Some of that looseness and comfort probably stems from his success on the court during a season that has seen him begin developing a new reputation as a valuable rim-running finisher and increasingly savvy defender for Golden State. McGee hasn’t always been seen that way.

Back when “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” Shaquille O’Neal’s comedy segment on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” broadcast, was just taking off, McGee was its unwitting star. It wasn’t long before the segment seemed to consist of clip after clip of McGee bloopers. That reputation started to follow him, and those bloopers led O’Neal to repeatedly mock him on national television, which has resulted in quite a few unkind words passing between the two big men over the past year.

“It’s not the greatest thing for your reputation,” Kerr said in February, according to the San Jose Mercury News. “I can tell you that I had a preconceived notion of JaVale before I got here that turned out to be false. A lot of that is what goes on with ‘Shaqtin’ A Fool.’ It’s unfortunate. It’s kind of the way this whole thing has played out. It’s too bad.”

The blooper-generating McGee is not the one that has shown up for the Warriors. He has made an obvious impact. His defensive efforts helped spur the Warriors’ Game 3 comeback win over the Trail Blazers on Saturday night, and he’s making the most of his offensive opportunities, converting 16 of his 19 field-goal attempts in the series.

According to Brown, the Warriors didn’t know what to expect when they first brought in the mercurial center, because McGee hadn’t seen much playing time since his days with the Washington Wizards and Denver Nuggets. Over the last three seasons, McGee had seen limited time in Denver and bounced around through short stints with the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks.

Intrigued by his length and athleticism, the Warriors thought McGee might be able to help fill the holes left by the offseason departures of centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Brown insists that the relationship has become mutually beneficial, and that the Warriors need McGee now just as much as he needed them before the season.

“We took a flier on him because we didn’t have anybody who was like him,” Brown said. “And from the beginning of the season to now, you can see his growth patterns, particularly in understanding what he should be doing out on the floor. He’s also got a great grasp of what I call giving multiple efforts on each possession.”

By that, Brown means that McGee can come across the paint to provide help defense and then crash the glass. He can protect the rim on one end of the court and then rush out to fill the lane and finish off a two-handed slam that leaves his teammates in awe.

McGee’s length and athleticism have long made him a gifted shot-blocker, but he’s also taken strides as a team defender in his first year as a Warrior. (AP)
McGee’s length and athleticism have long made him a gifted shot-blocker, but he’s also taken strides as a team defender in his first year as a Warrior. (AP)

The Warriors have chosen to play McGee in five- to six-minute stretches because, unlike most 7-footers, he is active all over the floor, running its full length. In pick-and-roll situations, the coaching staff instructs McGee to be up the floor and then, as soon as the offensive play is over, the bench is yelling at him to get back down the court. Brown says he has a guard’s quickness, and his hands are soft and fast.

“It’s unbelievable,” Brown said. “We didn’t teach his hands to be soft, and we didn’t teach the ability to catch some of these bad passes. It’s phenomenal to see him get up and get balls that you think have no chance to get caught by anybody. But that’s just a testament to how skilled he is in that area.”

McGee thinks of himself as the team’s “spark plug,” the guy the Warriors can bring off the bench when they need an energy boost.

“They know I’m going to go out there and go as hard as possible, and try to get every loose ball and try to block every shot and try to dunk everything they throw to me,” he said.

As far-fetched as it might have seemed last summer, McGee has made himself into an essential part of this Warriors’ roster. With just one more win separating Golden State and the second round, it’s possible McGee could become even more valuable as Golden State faces off against more and more talented opposition.

McGee’s play with the Warriors has put him in a place where he could be highly sought-after this summer. He signed a one-year, $1.4 million contract with Golden State at the beginning of the season, but surely will be worth more on the open market after his performance.

Asked if he wants to stay with the Warriors in the offseason, he says, “Hell yeah. But it’s the NBA, so anything could happen.”

For now, McGee will continue to throw down dunks that dazzle teammates and the crowd during games, and sing in the shower at the top of his lungs after them.

“I’m definitely goofy, lighthearted [and] quick-witted,” McGee said. “I’m just an easygoing guy. There’s not a negative bone in my body. Like, for what? I’m living the life right now. No matter how much money you make, this is traveling, playing basketball — a game — and you make a lot of money. Like, what can I complain about? It’s just a blessing to be here. I’m the positive guy … but when they throw it up, they know I’m going to go get it.”

More from Yahoo Sports:
Game 4 over early as Warriors complete sweep
‘Excited’ Peterson confirms deal with New Orleans
Dale Jr. retires as the toughest athlete in sports history
The story of the Colts’ historically bad 1992 draft

What to Read Next