OAKLAND -- The unlikeliest star of this NBA postseason could not and should not be blamed if he wakes up each morning blowing kisses toward his suddenly charmed life.
JaVale McGee has, in the span of seven months, been transported from the bottom of league’s recycling bin to the top of its penthouse. He’s in a great place, literally and figuratively. He’s doing spectacular things on a wonderful team that enjoys his presence and knows how to activate his skills.
Formerly the unwitting class clown of the NBA, a man who drew eye rolls on sight, McGee, all 7 feet of him, is a bona fide April star.
“Oh, y’all on the JaVale bandwagon now, huh?” teammate Kevin Durant cracked Wednesday, grinning broadly while facing Bay Area media.
McGee, 29, has been in the league for nine seasons, and this is the first time he has been in the driver’s seat of a bandwagon. He was the breakout performer as the Warriors blasted through the first round of the playoffs by laying a four-game sweep on the Trail Blazers McGee played 49 minutes, scoring 39 points on 78.3-percent shooting, with 17 rebounds and nine blocks.
The Warriors outscored Portland by 48 points during McGee’s limited time on the floor. His offensive and defense numbers are off-the-charts stellar. So thrilled is he to be a part of this postseason that he’s almost giddy to get any playing time at all.
“I’m happy with the minutes I’m getting,” McGee said. “I’m as efficient as I can be and we’re winning. So I can’t be the guy that says ‘Play me more minutes,’ when what you’re doing with me is working on my behalf and the team’s behalf. So I don’t have any problems with as many minutes I’m getting as long as we win.”
This is a man with perspective. McGee concedes that as the days ticked by last July and August and into early September without a contract offer, he wondered if he still had a career. He had played with four teams, most recently Dallas in 2015-16, when he battled injuries.
“I really did think that maybe that was it, that basketball was done for me,” McGee recently told NBCSportsBayArea.com. “I had to start thinking about what else I wanted to do. But I didn’t have a plan.”
He didn’t need one, because the Warriors came calling and he signed with them on Sept. 16. He was a last-minute training-camp invitee with a non-guaranteed contract -- and the baggage that comes with being persistently ridiculed on national TV. Most notably, McGee was the butt of Shaquille O’Neal’s derision on ‘Shaqtin’ A Fool,” a video series featuring lowlights of gaffes made by players.
After snagging the last open spot on the roster, McGee slowly began making himself useful. Midway through the season, he had become a fan favorite at Oracle Arena, where crowds begin applauding and cheering the instant he rises from the bench and walks to the scorer’s table to enter a game.
He’s a master at going up and grabbing lobs and throwing the ball through the rim. He’s an imposing shot-blocker. His paint presence on offense automatically compromises defenses, giving deep-shooting teammates such as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Durant additional space with which to operate.
Being in the right place, at the right time, with teammates that play to his gifts, has done more than revive McGee’s career. It has taken him off lowlight shows and made him a staple of highlight shows. He won’t have to wait long at all this summer before contract offers are waved in front of his face.
“When you’re playing with Draymond (Green) and Steph and Klay and Andre (Iguodala), this whole team, it makes everybody better,” Durant explained. “From the top guy to the bottom guy, everybody gets better from just playing with a smart group of players and playing with such great talent. Everybody plays to their strength here.”
Nobody does so more than McGee, whose greatest strength may be his effort. It’s his sheer hustle that most endears him to teammates and coaches and fans. His max-effort approach generally results in making a high impact and maintaining over no more than 12 to 18 minutes per game.
“Most 7-footers, when it comes to pick-and-roll action, we’re telling them: ‘Hey, kind of be close to the screen, but it’s OK if you’re down the floor,’” Brown said. “But we’re telling him in pick-and-roll situations . . . be up the floor, be up the floor.
“So he’s up the floor, then he’s chasing the ball to the rim, blocking it, trying to get a rebound. Then sometimes, he’s closing out, contesting a shot. And then we’re having him set the screen and, ‘Hey, every time you set a screen, you roll. If you don’t get it, come back out, set a screen and roll again.’
“So he expends a lot of energy with how hard he plays. We feel he’s a five- to six-minute type guy. Then you sit him down.”
McGee plays as if every minute matters, as if the game might be taken away. As if it’s the last time he’ll play it. Perhaps because, for a few weeks, he thought it might be.