Monday, 1 April 2013

The Denver Nuggets are getting used to JaVale McGee

There have been many profiles written about Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee over the past few seasons, and most focus on the same general points: McGee is very talented, he is a big goofball, and he could be on the brink of a major breakthrough. The best of these, like Lee Jenkins's Sports Illustrated piece from last April, go deep enough to transcend a familiar format. But the fact remains that the form of discussing McGee is now pretty standard.

Thankfully, Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post has penned a new piece on JaVale with a different approach. With McGee now in his second season with the Nuggets, the team is beginning to get used to him:

"If you left him in a first-grade class for an hour, who knows what you'd have when you got back? You might have a statue built out of desks and chairs," said Nuggets assistant coach Melvin Hunt. "And if you left him in a class at MIT, who knows?

"He's unique. You look at his physique, he's unique, and guys don't have that combination on the court, nor that combination off the court. He's witty, at the same time he's goofy, at the same time he's smart, at the same time he's silly. He can take you a lot of places." [...]

"When you think of JaVale McGee, you think of some big dummy, but it's the opposite," said Nuggets teammate Julyan Stone. "He'll use words and I'll be like, 'Where did you even learn that word?' He knows a lot about history. He knows a lot about a lot of stuff. And he makes a lot of intelligent jokes that a lot of people don't get, unless you have some type of IQ." [...]

Quietly asked about the enigma that is McGee, Nuggets coach George Karl said, "I sometimes wish I could take his human IQ and turn it into basketball IQ. That would be my only thing."

Iguodala is probably the wisest player on the team. He points out that McGee, though clownish, isn't like a nervous, dorky guy just trying to fit in.

"He's the opposite of that. He's his own guy, in a different way, and he embraces it," Iguodala said. "That's what I enjoy most about him."

This piece is full of the same tales of JaVale you've seen elsewhere — he doesn't think "badger" can be a verb, for one thing — but Hochman starts from the premise that this is simply who JaVale is, not that he's some crazy kid who hasn't yet figured out who he wants to be. In fact, the most quoted person in the piece isn't a teammate or coach, but an expert on the art of clowning:

Duncan Wall knows circuses. The author studied at the famed Ecole Nationale des Arts du Cirque in France, then chronicled the experience in his new book, "The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present."

Wall did not know of JaVale McGee. But after being e-mailed links to a few videos of the high-flying 7-footer, Wall said in a phone interview, "My thought watching him was that he's kind of a circus unto himself. He is acrobatic in a creative sense. What distinguishes the circus from gymnastics is this idea of creativity. This dude is just very creative with his physicality. He's able to move in ways you wouldn't expect him to move. He has this dynamism, especially for a guy that size. It's like, 'Wait a minute, he almost doesn't know how big he is.' [...]

"He clearly follows his own quirky logic," Wall said, "which is another principle of clowning. Think of Chaplin. There's that iconic scene in 'The Gold Rush' when he cooks his shoelaces and eats them like spaghetti, twirling them on his fork. It's a ridiculous act, but it also grounded in reality we understand. JaVale's a bit the same way. You can see the idea he's pursuing, but then he veers off to this other place and you're like, 'Whoa, what are you doing, JaVale? Come on back, buddy.'

Wall's commentary suggests that McGee is someone who hasn't figured everything out yet, but it also emphasizes the consistency and authenticity of his current persona. While there's obviously still room for improvement and maturity, there's also something whole about McGee as he currently stands. He's not a work in progress.

It's all fine to say that McGee has limitless potential, but his progress up until this point — his fifth NBA season, remember — suggests a lot about his future. Perhaps JaVale is better suited to being a high-impact role player than the star many have hoped for. As the Nuggets appear to be finding out, there's value in accepting McGee as he is. Why focus on an uncertain future when he already presents such intriguing possibilities?

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