Pamela McGee once told the Washington Post's Mike Wise, in a conversation about her son, JaVale, that JaVale was "the future of the NBA." This expression was the portion of her comments that grabbed the attention of NBA fans, for a fairly simple reason: JaVale McGee, then and now, is one of the most spectacularly helpless players in all of basketball.
She said a lot more than that, of course: she spoke of a big-hearted kid with special, innate gifts that should be nurtured by his then-team, the Wizards, if they were really serious about rebuilding their franchise from what she was too polite to call the hellish shit-show it had always been into a successful basketball operation; she and everyone else is still mostly waiting on this part. Parents are supposed to see their kids this way, of course, but—leaving aside the "future of the NBA" part—you'd have to search around for people, even now, who'd disagree very strongly with her personal assessment of her son.
A few highlight moments of on-court wackiness aside, JaVale has always seemed to be a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy with a goofy sense of humor, and—more importantly to his employers, if not anyone else—an enormous human with outlandish athletic ability. In an alternate universe, McGee makes several All-Star appearances and stars as Mantis in a modern remake of Game of Death. In our universe, McGee was traded to the Denver Nuggets for Nene as part of a complete teardown of an infamous Wizards core of knuckleheads, just weeks after his mom came to his defense.
There exists the possibility that JaVale McGee just got caught between an earlier era—a more innocent and less gangly time in which men with his exact skill-set were tricky fits on an NBA roster—and now, when men like him are the easiest plug-and-play types in the whole sport. The what-ifs of a player of McGee's stature within his sport generally don't inspire much thought or conversation. But JaVale is different, here and everywhere else, and his particular case illuminates how organizational dysfunction of the sort that defines the Wizards can drag players away from their potential and undermine their careers while simultaneously leaving the architects of the dysfunction mostly unscathed. The organization that ruins JaVale McGee can cut its losses; the ruined player is left to soak in them.
In retrospect, it's hard to believe that it took NBA coaches and players generations to get behind the idea of incorporating into the standard half-court offense a play where a tall man runs toward the basket and another man throws the ball up in the air for him to catch and dunk. Prior to the popularization of the pick-and-roll and (in particular) the pick-and-roll alley-oop, it was basically the role of the NBA big man to walk from one block to the other and stick his hand in the air, the idea being that, by granting him possession of the ball, his team was increasing its odds of scoring points. It has taken decades of basketball and all kinds of new math for the basketball community to observe that there are only so many players for whom that play will work more often than not.
That the Washington Wizards still haven't figured this out—are still, to this day, dumping possessions on post touches for Marcin Gortat, a spectacular pick-and-roll player and wholly unspectacular post scorer—sort of illustrates the kind of environment McGee entered as an NBA rookie.
Right around the time McGee joined the Wizards, Tyson Chandler and Chris Paul, then together in New Orleans, were perfecting a template for how to use an athletic big guy with limited offensive skills in a half-court offense. This play—a high pick-and-roll that, rather than leveraging the threat of dribble penetration, uses the danger of an alley-oop to collapse the opposing defense—has made two-way troublemakers out of everyone from superhuman specimens like Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan to gangly role players like Brandan Wright and John Henson. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire ran it to death during the 7 Seconds Or Less era in Phoenix, elevating the pair into a two-time MVP and max-contract player, respectively. It's an aggressive, straight-to-the-point method of attack that fits, spiritually and practically, within the modern era of analytics: the pick-and-roll in general strips a lot of the noise and excess from more complicated offenses, and using it to extract important offensive value from a comparatively abundant player type—the springy but unskilled big—gives it particular value to teams whose offenses emphasize efficiency.
While this revolution was happening, the Wizards were bogging down in an overscripted offense evidently designed by then-coach Flip Saunders to reign in the chaotic tendencies of a new young core of players that included McGee and kindred knuckleheads Nick Young and Andray Blatche. McGee was raw and spastic, with a flair for the highlight play, and did his fair share of finishing alley-oops, but he had no semblance of a back-to-the-basket post game. This deficiency was only apparent, however, because the Wizards were laboring under the old and terrible notion that a credible NBA offense should, by default, endeavor to dump the ball into the post to anyone roughly McGee's size, even if that player was as clumsy and useless in that position as McGee evidently was (and is).
As it turned out, these back-to-the-basket touches negated the only detectable strengths McGee has ever had as an NBA player, which happened to be the ones pinpointed by his mom in her conversation with Wise—length, soft hands, and tremendous athleticism. Being used in this way positioned him, almost by design, to fail. Worse, by lacking the flexibility to use McGee in any other way, the offense turned him into a constant and significant liability. His value at that end shrank down to his ability to snag offensive rebounds; any other touches spelled disaster. Often hilarious and attention-grabbing disaster, of the sort that turned McGee into YouTube appointment viewing.
Wizards fans knew it wasn't going to happen for McGee in Washington when he spent an offseason working out the mechanics of an old-fashioned hook shot. This became at best a curiosity and at worst (and most often) confirmation of McGee's essential hopelessness as an offensive player, at least on a team that insisted on using him as the Wizards did. An NBA big man needs something like a post-move hook shot only when he's getting touches in the post, and no efficient NBA offense would ever bother using a player like McGee in this way, if for no other reason than the pick-and-roll presents so much better a way to use him. It may not have been Washington's plan to continue feeding McGee the ball on the block, but that's neither here nor there: if devoting an entire offseason to practicing a clunky and hopeless hook shot was McGee's own idea of integrating himself into Washington's offense, that only suggests that the Wizards hadn't given him much of an idea of any other way they intended to use him, and were not involved at all in guiding his skills development.
That would be puzzling and sad, considering all the Wizards stood to gain from finding a valuable offensive role for a player with McGee's athletic upside, but it's not hard to believe of an organization as steeped in dysfunction as the Wizards. For that same reason, it's not too difficult to believe the (extremely depressing) alternative: that the Wizards specifically told JaVale McGee, a dunking machine in his athletic prime, to spend his offseason developing a go-to move that completely negated every one of his athletic gifts. One way or another, due to organizational dysfunction, when McGee should have been focusing all of his development efforts on becoming a revelatory pick-and-roll monster, he was loping awkwardly to his right and stiffly flinging the ball basketward.
When word got around that McGee was bringing a hook shot to training camp, McGee's reputation was already so degraded that the response was dark mirth—this guy thinks he needs a go-to post move? What we didn't know then is that Grunfeld and Randy Wittman—the Flip Saunders disciple who joined the Wizards as an assistant when they hired Saunders in 2009 and took over as head coach after Saunders' 2012 firing—would later ask another raw and athletic NBA project to make a similarly ill-suited and misguided commitment to low-post offense. That'd be Jan Vesely, who'll be remembered, if at all, as the ultimate draft bomb of the modern era and, by many measures, one of the worst players in NBA history. His and McGee's tenures in Washington ended in eerily similar fashions, with both men being dumped on the Denver Nuggets in exchange for veterans whose main utility to the Wizards was that they weren't, in fact, JaVale McGee or Jan Vesely.
The one young Wizards big man who managed to stick around, funnily enough, is Kevin Seraphin, whose value to the Wizards is as a low-IQ basketball robot that has been programmed to crank out, you guessed it, low-post hook shots. If Seraphin's specific enduring utility to the Wizards is evidence that Wittman is executing the organization's plan better than Saunders did, it should probably be noted that there's still not much proof the plan is worth executing in the first place.
Seraphin can sure pump up post hook shots (and man oh man does he ever—the man's Usage is higher than everyone not named John Wall and Bradley Beal among Washington's regular players) but his failure to develop much as a player beyond that limited skill has made him into yet another fun/funny NBA punchline, albeit one whose single-use reliability has kept him employed within the organization. During warmups before a Wizards home game in Seraphin's fourth NBA season, I was awed to see him throw down outrageous windmill dunks with apparent ease—prior to that very moment, there'd been no reason to believe he was any more athletic than the coach himself. His role doesn't require or have much use for all that athleticism. What it calls for is hook shots.
So where did this plan and development curve strand JaVale McGee? By the time he departed Washington he was a cartoon character, his once-intriguing potential subsumed completely by his reputation as a clueless doofus and his persistent uselessness, across three-plus seasons, in an offense that insisted upon putting him where he didn't belong. Then, brutally, just over a year after he'd been jettisoned from Washington to Denver, the Nuggets hired a head coach, in Brian Shaw, whose vision for building upon the success of his predecessor involved emphasizing exactly the nonexistent post game McGee had misguidedly tried and failed to develop as a Wizard. The poor fit had doomed JaVale's time in Washington, and Shaw's flamboyantly stupid decision to go back to that trough in Denver had a hand in dooming both McGee's and Shaw's time with the Nuggets. With abundant evidence of the wrongheadedness of this particular use of JaVale's ability, and a fresh opportunity to loose him from that model and test his potential as a pick-and-roll terror, Shaw instead opted to stick to traditional notions of interior play. That, or that plus some awfully timed and unfortunate injuries, ultimately did them both in.
McGee's abilities and limitations had no place in that earlier version of NBA offense—one that, with few exceptions, now only exists in the playbooks of those doomed and retrograde coaches who are known to us all as impediments to their own teams' success [stares bullets at Randy Wittman and Byron Scott]. What he can do, though, presents an otherwise interesting potential fit in the modern game. McGee has probably entered the part of his career where every time his name turns up in NBA news or an NBA highlight, for good or bad, it will always conjure an idea of a doof too clueless ever to have worked out in the long run. It's not so hard to imagine, though, that, had he been drafted by another team and spent those crucial early years being developed by a credible organization, he might have been Tyson Chandler 2.0.
Which brings us back to Pamela McGee, talking to Mike Wise near the midpoint of JaVale's fourth NBA season, just a few weeks before the Wizards finally gave up on his potential. "The future of the NBA" is what she called him, and she really might have been on to something. At a time of transition in the NBA game with respect to the use of specific player types, JaVale's abilities represented a raw but near-ideal fit for an emerging brand of basketball. In the NBA, though, time doesn't always flow like you might expect. For some teams and some players, the future had already arrived by the time JaVale's mom went to bat for him. In Washington, stuck under the inflexible leadership of Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman, it's still a point on the horizon. And maybe because of that, for JaVale McGee, there's really not much of a future at all.