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Outside of rookie deals, there might not be a better value contract in the NBA right now than JaVale McGee’s $5 million salary with the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns knew they were checking multiple boxes off their list when they signed him in free agency. With Dario Saric sidelined for the foreseeable future by an ACL tear, they were getting a backup center. With a predominantly young team that wanted another veteran voice behind Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, they were getting a three-time NBA champion. And with the Suns’ lack of size being exploited by the super-sized Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals, they were getting an above-the-rim threat on both ends.
McGee barely played in Denver, but after watching the 7-footer go full pedal to the metal in garbage time during Phoenix’s second-round sweep of the Nuggets, the Suns quickly started to envision what he might look like in a Phoenix jersey.
“I’m not quite sure how everybody else viewed him, but we saw him in the playoffs last year for Denver,” Monty Williams said. “He came into the game and changed it with his energy. We thought a guy like that would complement Dario to just give us a different look, not knowing how the season was gonna turn out. But we’re just glad to have him.”
The Suns had no idea Saric’s injury would exacerbate their need for size behind Deandre Ayton. They also had no idea they’d be getting peak JaVale McGee at age 33.
Case in point: Phoenix’s win over the Washington Wizards Thursday night. Despite missing Devin Booker and three other rotation players in Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Abdel Nader, the shorthanded Suns cruised to a 20-point victory. McGee was their leading scorer with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals…in a mere 16 minutes.
So far this season, McGee is averaging 10.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in just 16.0 minutes per game. He’s shooting 64.6 percent from the field, and the Suns have posted a +3.7 point differential with him on the floor.
“I mean, he was always looked at the way that we’re playing him,” Williams said. “We felt like he could give us rim protection, put pressure on the rim, play with great energy. We’re still figuring out ways to play him as far as minutes are concerned to take advantage of his energy. He just gives us a different dynamic, and we needed him.”
The rim-running, shot-blocking and gaudy production in limited minutes were all predictable traits for McGee to bring to the table. After all, he’s been a per 36 minutes god for most of his NBA career. But even for a hyper-productive player who maximizes his time on the floor, he’s taking it to unprecedented levels in Phoenix.
In his first 28 games with the Suns, McGee is posting an eye-popping 23.8 points, 16.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes, with a +8.4 point differential. While he only ranks sixth in scoring and second in rebounding on the Suns’ roster on a per-game basis, on a per-36-minutes basis, he ranks 21st in scoring and second in rebounding in the entire league (among qualified players).
Through 14 years in the league, McGee has never posted a higher scoring or rebounding average per 36 minutes, and his field-goal percentage is the second-highest mark of his career, trailing only the 2016-17 season, when he played for a Golden State Warriors team that just so happened to win the title.
So what’s fueling this career-best season?
“Chris Paul,” McGee said with a laugh. “If you look at his record, and you look at all the bigs that have ever played with him, they’ve always been successful playing with him. You got that, you got coach Monty drawing plays for the bigs, or drawing plays to where the bigs don’t have to do too much. He’ll draw a snap play where we set a screen, they back-screen us and then, even if he doesn’t come to us, it goes to the corner because of the roll and they shoot the 3 but we’re in great position for offensive rebounding. It’s just a lot of stuff that coach Monty thinks of and puts us in positions to be great, especially as bigs.”
It hasn’t all been perfect sledding; McGee being a per 36 minutes deity unfortunately extends to his turnovers (3.5) and fouls (5.7) as well. There’s a reason his Basketball-Reference page lists “The Great Adventure” as one of his many, colorful nicknames, because every trip down the floor holds the possibility for something terrific or downright wacky (his best alleged nickname is still “Big Daddy Wookie”). But even if the first few weeks were a roller coaster, it didn’t take long for the Suns to figure out how to properly utilize his talents.
“In about four- or five-minute spurts, he has unreal energy, and we’re starting to recognize that,” Williams said at the beginning of November.
The Suns went on to win all 16 games they played that month as part of a franchise-record 18-game win streak.
The biggest gripe with per 36 minutes numbers is that they tend to extrapolate data from small sample sizes into gargantuan numbers that would never hold up if the player in question actually played 36 minutes. McGee is no exception, since his conditioning has never allowed for him to play those kinds of extended minutes. Even in his prime, playing him for too long would lead to his shortcomings becoming more prominent.
But in McGee’s defense, it’s worth mentioning that he’s posted 13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 21.4 minutes per game over his eight starts in Phoenix. Even with Ayton in and out of the lineup, he’s managed to build chemistry with the second unit and then step into the big fella’s shoes whenever the Suns have needed him to.
In other words, his production isn’t small sample size theater.
“That kind of production when you don’t even know you’re going to play that many minutes says a lot about his approach to the game, his teammates trusting him,” Williams said last week after McGee filled in for a sick Ayton against the Boston Celtics. “We needed it.”
So how is he doing it? From McGee’s perspective, it’s a perfect pairing of his skill-set and an offensive system designed to utilize rim-running bigs in the pick-and-roll.
“If anything, it’s my teammates putting me in the right places, coaching staff running the right plays, it’s just a lot of things on this team that work for the center position if you’re doing it the right way,” he said. “I pride myself on being extremely efficient with the minutes that they give me, so I just feel like this season, I’m definitely trying to get my efficiency level to the highest possible point.”
Shooting 68 percent around the rim is pretty efficient! What’s scary is there’s still room for improvement. While that figure is about 11 percentage points higher than the league average, he’s only in the 56th percentile with his efficiency on shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass.
Building chemistry with a pick-and-roll maestro like Chris Paul is easy. Building it with Cam Payne, Landry Shamet and an entirely new second unit around you is another matter, but it’s starting to take shape.
“Cam Payne is getting better at driving to the paint and making the decision: Either I’m gonna throw the lob or I’m gonna shoot the shot,” McGee said. “And I’m getting better at deciphering if he’s shooting, or if I’m going to get the lob, or if he’s going to shoot, I’m going to go and try to get that offensive rebound. So we’re getting even better and better the more games that go in just getting comfortable with each other.”
Payne noted how that rim-running presence opens things up for Shamet and Cam Johnson on the perimeter, and that he and McGee have been trying to build that pick-and-roll chemistry since the start of training camp.
“Just having that rim threat, that dive threat, and me getting all the way to the rack, it just helps me and ‘Vale,” Payne said. “The second day of training camp. he was like, ‘Just throw it up there. Just throw it up there and I’ll take care of the rest.’ That’s big-time for me, it gives me a lot of confidence in just throwing it up there and him catching it and scoring.”
The numbers back up how dynamic McGee when rolling to the basket, flanked by Phoenix’s shooters. We’ve extensively covered Ayton’s growth into a dominant roll man already, but it’s worth noting that McGee is one of only two players in the entire NBA to post a higher points-per-possession average as the roll man than DA this season.
While Ayton ranks third in the league among all players with at least 50 such possessions, posting a monstrous 1.42 points per possession as the roll man, McGee has been even better, ranking second at 1.50 points per possession. The 33-year-old veteran is also shooting a league-best 78.3 percent on those possessions — just ahead of DA, who ranks second at 77.1 percent.
“I think maybe the shooting around the paint opens it up for him,” Williams posited. “But like I’ve said from day one with him, he works on it. When I saw him this summer in LA working out, I had no idea he worked that hard. And when he got here, he’s been an everyday guy. I think guys like that set themselves up to have productive years. He took a chance on us coming here. He had other opportunities, but I think maybe he saw what he could do with Chris and Book and Cam Payne in pick-and-roll, and maybe that’s why he’s having this kind of year.”
There are many reasons behind JaVale McGee’s career year in Phoenix, but one thing is clear: He might just be the best value contract right now.