Though more than a few folks around the NBA were curious about the Warriors inviting JaVale McGee to training camp, the front office consistently said it was an easy decision with an obvious motive.
The Warriors over the summer lost a lot of rim protection and McGee, an athletic 7-foot center, could help fill that void. Moreover, he would come at a budget price.
McGee, who earned the team’s final roster spot – with a minimum salary – and rarely left the bench through the first eight games, finally showcased his value Thursday night in a 125-101 win over the Nuggets at Pepsi Center in Denver.
“He’s a real pro,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of McGee. “He’s never complained about not playing, and we haven’t really given him a chance. Tonight we gave him a chance and he came through big time.”
Stephen Curry took care of the scoring load, with a game-high 33 points, including a couple acrobatic 3-point missiles. Draymond Green brought plenty of early energy, single-handedly jumpstarting the Warriors on the dark side of a back-to-back at altitude.
Yet it was McGee, coming off the bench in the first quarter to join the starters for the first time, who was summoned to help offset Denver’s size advantage in the paint.
With starting center Zaza Pachulia picking up two fouls in the first five minutes, McGee entered. He played a total of 15 minutes, scoring 10 points (4-of-6 shooting from the field), grabbing three rebounds, blocking two shots and providing a large presence at the rim.
“It was probably hastened by the foul trouble on Zaza,” Kerr said. “But we were planning on giving him a look. We’re looking at the first part of the season as somewhat experimental, trying some different combinations. We haven’t really given him a chance yet. And you could see he gives us a dimension that we otherwise don’t have, just that possibility of throwing the ball up to the rim for a lob, which basically provides you with extra spacing.”
McGee, making the $1.4 million veterans minimum, may have been motivated by his return to Denver, where he had productive seasons and good memories. More likely he was simply trying to make the most of his first significant action.
“I’ve been trying to stay prepared,” he told CSN broadcast analyst Jim Barnett. “Of course, I was a little winded; we are in Denver, and I haven’t played. I was a little winded, but I was just giving it my all.”
It was enough to impress his teammates.
“I’m proud of the work he’s put in at practice and shootarounds and after practice,” said Kevin Durant, whose 18-point night ended his his streak of consecutive games with at least 20 points at 72. “He’s been putting in work in the weight room. When his name was called, he was able to come out there and play extremely well.”
Still learning the Warriors’ system and still seeking peak fitness, McGee through the first eight games played a total of 22 minutes, the vast majority in fourth-quarter garbage time. With his performance on Thursday, the 7-foot, 270-pound veteran doubled his scoring output and number of blocks.
With Denver boasting center Jusuf Nurkic (7-foot, 280 pounds) and power forward Nikola Jokic (6-10, 255) – both of whom gave the Warriors considerable trouble in a preseason game last month – this was the logical game to test McGee.
“We’ve seen what he could do with the second unit at times,” Curry said. “But especially with (the Nuggets), he allows us to be able to match up with their size, to give them a different look in the paint on defense.
“He demands a lot of attention, and we have shooters all the way around him. He jelled pretty quickly. And you’ll probably see more of that.”
In which case, the Warriors will have salvaged a player whose NBA career was at such a crossroads most of the league didn’t bother trying to hire him.