The first time JaVale McGee drew the ire of Wizards head coach Flip Saunders on Monday against the Bulls happened early in the first quarter. Brad Miller gave a slight head and ball fake, McGee fell for it, and then watched as Miller went around him.
Saunders emphatically pointed towards the ground and yelled at the second year center: “Stay down, stay down!”
Less than two minutes later, McGee took a shot that was slightly out of his range, and missed everything. Saunders immediately whipped around and called for James Singleton to check into the game.
McGee slumped his shoulders, barely slapped fives with his teammates, and took a seat on the bench.
When he checked back into the game with 10 minutes left in the second quarter, McGee looked energized. He got rebounds on both the offensive and defensive ends, and he hit a short jumper to give his team the lead. But shortly thereafter he picked up a bad foul, got called for an illegal defense technical foul, and then he fell for yet another head fake.
Coach Saunders once again angrily called for Singleton to come in the game, and again McGee walked off the floor. But before he could get to the bench, Saunders grabbed his arm, then grabbed a white clipboard, and started diagramming a play and talking McGee through it.
I looked at Kyle Weidie from Truth About It, and wondered aloud what Coach Saunders was saying, and he challenged me to ask McGee after the game, so I did.
“Well, first he told me not to keep leaving my feet on defense, and then he said I had to play smarter and show a little more on my screen and rolls, ” the quiet McGee told me in front of his locker.
I asked McGee if he gets frustrated when he’s jerked out of the game like that, and he calmly responded, “Not at all. He’s teaching me what I need to do to be a better player and stay in the lineup. I can’t get mad at that.”
Prior the trades that saw the Wizards trade their former starting front line (Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison) to different teams, McGee was barely getting off the bench. But since entering the starting lineup four games ago, McGee has averaged 9 points, 6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game in 22 minutes of play.
He’s been wildly inconsistent, but he’s also shown a plethora of energy and a willingness to learn.
“We’ve got a group of guys that have high motors that play with a greater volume of aggression and intensity,” Saunders observed after his team’s 101-95 victory over the Chicago Bulls. “What’s happened is, the new guys are playing that way and now all of a sudden Andray (Blatche) and JaVale (McGee) and those guys have fallen right into place.”
I asked McGee if he felt his confidence rising as a result of the increased personalized attention from the head coach as well as more playing time.
“Definitely man, definitely,” McGee told me in a rare candid moment. “It was hard sitting on that bench knowing I could get in there and help my team. But now I know I’m going to play and if I mess up I know what to do the next time, so its much better like this.”
The next lesson for McGee? How to guard the combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Wednesday night against Memphis Grizzlies.