OAKLAND – Veteran center JaVale McGee signed with the Warriors in hopes of earning the team’s 15th and final contract, which he hopes does not result in being the 15th and last man.
The 15th man rarely plays in the NBA. He’s often relegated to inactive status even when healthy. He spends as much or more time with the D-League, traveling acceptably, than with the NBA team, which travels in luxury.
So McGee desperately wants to be the 12th man, or the 10th man or even the ninth on a team where he has no chance to crack the top eight. It will be a long climb for a guy coming off a year in Dallas, following a brief stay in Philadelphia after spending most of his career in Washington and Denver.
More to the point, he wants to restart an NBA career that has stalled partly because of injuries and partly because his reputation for mental errors – which have made him a league-wide punch line – has made some organizations skeptical of his value despite obvious physical gifts that few other 7-foot, 270-pound players possess.
McGee on Saturday crimped himself into a folding chair in the gym inside the Warriors facility, peeped around at the walls and came just short of making the sign of the cross.
“It’s definitely an opportunity, and it’s with the team that has probably the largest platform,” he told CSNBayArea.com. “It’s a winning team, and there are so many positive people. I just have to show up with all I’ve got.”
What McGee has is the ability to run the court faster and jump higher than most NBA big men. Though his offensive game is limited, he has the physical ability to be exceptional rebounding and blocking shots.
His biggest challenges are consistency and adapting to a new system and culture.
“I’m trying to get used to setting screens randomly, and getting people open and expecting them to shoot,” he said. “Other teams, when they come off screens they don’t always shoot right away. But this team, they shoot right away. So you’ve got to set that screen, get to the rim for the rebound or set another screen. It’s real quick.
“It’s a real smooth game. Once everybody’s engine is rolling, it’s going to be special.”
McGee is acutely aware of his reputation, which stems largely from mindless moments that have made him a regular on Shaquille O’Neal’s lowlight clips dubbed “Shaqtin’ A Fool,” which spoofs the goofs of players.
At 28, McGee would like that image to fade away. He says he’s committed now and always to doing his part to bury what he feels is unfair branding.
“You’ve never seen me complain, you’ve never seen me cry about not being on the floor, you’ve never seen me do anything negative,” he said. “I’ve always been a hard worker. I’ve always come into the gym late at night to get my free throws up. I’ve always just been a positive player. I’ve always been a positive person.
“Through my injuries, through being bought out by Philly, I still stayed with it. The next year, in Dallas, I didn’t play a lot and never complained. You never heard me cry to the media. I’ve never been that person. I’m just a hard worker. I come in here and do what I have to do.
“I’ve never been a complainer, and I don’t plan on complaining now.”
After losing rim-protecting centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli in the offseason the Warriors are giving McGee a chance to fill some of that void. It’s a make-good contract, so if he doesn’t earn a spot, he’s back on the market. If he does, it’s because will have shown enough for a minimal investment.
Bothered the past two seasons by a stress fracture in his left tibia, McGee, finally feeling healthy, spent the summer preparing for what could be his last, best chance to reshape his reputation. He changed his diet, going vegan for a month and has since become a pescatarian. He was hoping for a chance and upon signing a non-guaranteed contract 10 days before training camp, he arrived in Oakland with simple goals:
“Stay in the best condition I can. Stay consistent with my defense. Block shots and rebound. And catch alley-oops on the fast break.”
That’s all the Warriors are asking. And if McGee delivers, he not only will make the roster but also could have chance to alter the arc of a career thus far defined mostly by miscues that paint him as the butt of Shaq’s jokes.