JaVale McGee landed in one of the worst possible situations as a rookie.
He started his career on that crazy Wizards team which featured Gilbert Arenas, Javaris Crittenton, DeShawn Stevenson and Nick Young.
For McGee, it was the basketball equivalent of getting caught up with the wrong crowd.
Spending your formative years surrounded by those guys would mess anyone up.
JaVale always had some underlying boneheaded tendencies, but Washington’s terrible culture enabled it.
A model franchise like the Spurs would have forced those bad habits out of him on day one.
Instead, we saw McGee’s worst side for three solid years in DC, as he continued on his path to becoming a Shaqtin’ A Fool Hall of Famer.
But there was a bigger problem: he wasn’t taking advantage of his incredible physical tools or living up to his potential.
McGee showed flashes and his stats were OK, but his numbers were empty.
He scored a lot of his buckets outside the flow of the offence, or once the game was already lost.
But the tide finally started to turn when McGee was traded to Denver in March 2012.
He immediately looked much better on the free-wheeling Nuggets.
It was the first time he had played on a team that actually moved the ball and looked for him on offence, and the results were spectacular.
In his Nuggets debut, McGee threw down endless alley-oops and even won the game with a crazy tip-jam off a missed free throw.
But just as things were really looking up, injury struck.
McGee missed all but five games in 2013-14 after having surgery to repair a stress fracture in his leg.
And the injury bug didn’t let up.
McGee managed just 23 games the following season and 34 games the year after that.
And just to rub salt into the wounds, he was traded to the process-trusting 76ers when they barely had a single recognisable player on their roster.
He signed with the Mavs not long afterwards, but was waived once again.
At this point, it would’ve been easy to right McGee off altogether.
Injuries were getting the better of him, his name was still heavily stigmatised, and he’d only ever had one and a half good seasons anyway.
The public still perceived him as the old JaVale, the guy who’d become a meme to represent stupidity, the guy who tried to posterize someone from the free-throw line.
And yet the Warriors were one team who saw things differently.
They understood how good he was in Denver and took a chance on him in the summer of 2016.
Now, remember how good JaVale looked with Nuggets due to having a team that moved the ball, had a competent coach and gave him a proper role?
Well, then it should’ve come as no surprise that McGee bounced back with Golden State.
He didn’t play big minutes, but he played important minutes – the opposite of his time in Washington.
And he was highly productive in that time, putting up a career-high 23 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes.
He maintained that during the playoffs, averaging 23 points per 36 in the 2017 postseason and 19 per 36 in 2018.
Having languished in the basketball wasteland that was Washington DC to begin his career, McGee had established himself as an integral part of a championship team.
If you tried to predict that a few years ago you would’ve been laughed out of the room.
The next stop for JaVale was LA, where he signed to play in the purple and gold just like his mum.
LeBron James and the higher ups at the Lakers apparently said to themselves, “If I can’t land a star big man like Boogie or AD this summer, I want JaVale”.
Immediately, McGee became one of the team’s most important players at both ends of the floor.
For the first time ever, he made his mark as a legitimate starting center, putting up career highs in points, assists and steals.
And he was doing all this – effectively and efficiently – alongside James, a guy no one else on the team could figure out how to play with.
On a team that couldn’t get anything going, JaVale was out there playing the best basketball of his career.
He was only starting to reach his peak at 31-years-old.
Now think back to every other so-called ‘boneheaded’ player from the past.
How many of them actually got better as they aged?
Not many, if any.
Gilbert Arenas, DeShawn Stevenson and Nick Young certainly didn’t.
All of McGee’s achievements came against the odds.
And this summer, he had the luxury of being a coveted free agent.
After being a punchline for so long, he was the guy teams were chasing.
What a difference a few years makes.