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Phoenix Suns 2021-22 player previews: JaVale McGee's professionalism looms as large as his frame

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
October 11, 2021

In the NBA Finals, the only glaring weakness on the Phoenix Suns’ roster was exposed against the tall trees of the Milwaukee Bucks. While Deandre Ayton offered plenty of size and strength, once Dario Saric tore his ACL in Game 1, the Suns were hurting for more length and rebounding on the interior. Frank Kaminsky did his best, and Torrey Craig at the 5 was worth a shot, but Phoenix was pummeled on the boards and in the paint by versatile bigs like Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and obviously the Greek Freak himself, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

General manager James Jones was acutely aware of his lone oversight and corrected it immediately in free agency, bringing JaVale McGee to the Valley on a one-year, $5 million contract.

At 7 feet tall, with arms that would make Groot jealous, McGee’s size, skill-set and above-the-rim presence offers a completely different dynamic to the backup center spot compared to Saric.

“I think JaVale gives us a great interior presence,” Jones said. “He also gives us a fearlessness from the interior, a guy that can put pressure on the rim, a guy that will attack and block shots, and he’s big. You can never have too much size in this league.”

Saric will spend most if not all of the season rehabbing, so even with Frank Kaminsky back to fill that “connector” role in the frontcourt, McGee is now the backup 5. Even better, he offers continuity between the first unit and the second unit as a similar player archetype to Ayton.

“Having another guy the same size as me finally is a dream come true,” Ayton said at Media Day. “I’ll get some help down low and I can get a little breather while on the bench while my guy is taking care of business.”


On paper, McGee’s 7.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game last year don’t seem overly impressive…until you realize he was putting up those numbers in just 14.7 minutes a night.

As a rim protector, McGee was 10th in the entire NBA in blocks per 36 minutes, and according to Cleaning The Glass, he’s ranked in the 93rd percentile or better in block percentage in each of the last six seasons. He also placed in the 98th percentile in blocks per 75 possessions, as well as percentage of rim shots contested, per The Bball Index. As if that weren’t enough, he racked up a hearty number of steals (80th percentile) and deflections (87th percentile) too.

So yeah. JaVale McGee is a pretty good rim — and even perimeter — deterrent with those Mr. Fantastic arms of his.

“He’s just so doggone big,” head coach Monty Williams said. “Somebody was joking around with him the other day, one of the coaches, and said, ‘Can you touch the rim without leaving the floor?’ and he just slapped the rim. And I thought like, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s long.’ So I think he’s gonna have a huge impact on our team this year on both ends of the floor.”

Much like Ayton, McGee’s 7-foot frame, length and above-the-rim acumen will help on the offensive end as well. Saric played a very different role in the second unit offense, but with McGee sporting a similar skill-set and athletic makeup to DA, the Suns will be able to replicate a lot of the same offense they run with the starting five whenever McGee checks in.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” McGee said. “I mean, 2020 Lakers, it was two traditional bigs back-to-back and they won it. So just thinking about that, it’s very possible, and it’s one of the things that I feel like this team has that other teams don’t really emphasize on.”

As the roll man in pick-and-roll sets, McGee’s dives to the basket will have to be accounted for, much like opposing defenses already have to worry about Ayton’s gravity whenever he drops into the painted area. Some teams just won’t have the personnel or depth to account for back-to-back lob threats like that. It’s not surprising that McGee’s teams averaged 1.28 points per possession with him as the roll man in pick-and-rolls last year. That figure ranked in the 99th percentile, per The Bball Index.

It doesn’t hurt that McGee is a very good finisher around the basket either. He ranked in the 94th percentile in total shots at the rim per 75 possessions, 98th percentile in shot quality at the rim and 88th percentile in adjusted field-goal percentage at the rim.

Basically, if McGee isn’t kept out of the paint on his rolls, there aren’t a lot of guys in this league that are going to challenge him at the hoop.

On the rebounding front, McGee and Ayton will form one of the most unstoppable tandems in the league when it comes to crashing the offensive glass. Amassing a whopping 13.2 rebounds per 75 possessions, McGee ranked in at least the 93rd percentile in both offensive and defensive rebounds per 75 possessions, as well as the 88th percentile in put-backs per 75 possessions.

McGee understandably feels confident in the traits he’s picked up over his 13 years in the league that make him such a consistent pest on the offensive glass.

“For me, definitely speed, strength and timing,” he said. “Just never giving up. That’s one thing about offensive rebounds too. Sometimes you’re lucky and get those tip dunks and the easy ones, but sometimes you get long rebounds or just tap-outs by just working hard and moving around the defense. So yeah, it’s not easy, but it’s definitely an art.”

That art is one the Suns should perfect between their two frontcourt titans at the 5, but for all his on-court impact, JaVale McGee’s off-court influence looms just as large.


In his early years, McGee was more synonymous with “Shaqtin’ A Fool” than he was with descriptors like “professionalism” or “experience.” But you don’t stick in this league for over a decade without doing something right, and during the first week of training camp, everyone in Phoenix repeatedly brought up how impressed they were with the example he’s been setting despite joining an entirely new team.

“To me, he’s a breath of fresh air,” Williams said. “He’s a pro. That’s been the thing that I’ve been impressed with his first few days of practice, his ability to just be an example for all of our guys. His body is in great shape, he’s one of the first guys on the floor, one of the last to leave. It’s early, but I’ve been impressed with his ability to just be a great example.”

“You just see it already — his maturity, his talking on defense, his communicating with guys,” Chris Paul added. “He’s done seen it all, you know what I mean? The man got three championships. So he knows what it means to be a starter in this league, he knows what it means to come off the bench, but more than anything, he knows what it feels like. He knows what real teamwork and all that stuff feels like.”

McGee won his three titles in a four-year span with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. This summer, he added to his resume with a gold medal for Team USA at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. That made him and his mother, Pamela McGee, the only mother-son duo to win Olympic gold medals.

“Having JaVale, a veteran, in our back pocket, a leader, someone who’s been through the fire, a champion, NBA champion, a gold medalist — having that in our locker room and having that on a nightly basis is gonna help us,” Jae Crowder said. “It’s gonna help us be able to adjust when things are not going our way, whatever it is, whether it be foul trouble or injury.”

While the rave reviews continue to pour in, McGee isn’t surprised in the slightest; this has been his M.O. for awhile now. Chris Paul noticed it late in a win over the Denver Nuggets, McGee’s last team, when the 7-footer was still going as hard as ever in a blowout loss.

Paul told McGee after the game that he was impressed to see a 13-year NBA vet going so hard in garbage time like that. A few months later, McGee joined him on the Suns.

“Whenever I’m in those positions where I’m not getting the minutes I wanna get or I’m not playing, I always try to take advantage of the opportunities that I get and show the other team, ‘I’m still that shit,’ he said. “‘I still got it, just because they’re not playing me doesn’t mean I’m not good.’ Clearly it worked I guess.”

So far in Phoenix, McGee has already organized one team dinner to help break the ice with some of the new guys. Learning all the different terminology on a new offense takes time, but younger bigs like Ayton and Jalen Smith are already looking to the 33-year-old vet to pick up little tidbits that will add to their game.

McGee said he’s just as excited to learn from Ayton as he is to teach, but having a backup with the kind of length to really challenge DA in practice could pay dividends for Phoenix.

“I’m extremely excited to step into that mentor role and really just try to help him get his mind right to be the best player he can be,” McGee said. “He’s already a great player for as young as he is, and I just think he has a couple of steps he could take and be great.”

Ayton and McGee may never get their fever dream of sharing the court together, but in giving Cameron Payne a lob threat, Ayton someone to push him and the Suns some extra size, JaVale McGee could have one of the most understated impacts on any NBA contender this year.

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