RICHMOND, VA -- Flip Saunders isn't the type of coach to badmouth his players publicly. Ask him about Gilbert Arenas, and Saunders will praise his competitiveness, his love of the game and his basketball IQ. Ask Saunders about Andray Blatche and Nick Young, and Saunders will go on about how much they improved over the summer. Ask Saunders about Fabricio Oberto and Mike James, and Saunders will laud their championships experience.
Ask Saunders about JaVale McGee, though, and some criticism will slip in there. Three days ago, Saunders suggested McGee's conditioning was not up to par, saying he got tired during the scrimmages and his play suffered because of it. Yesterday, when asked about McGee's conditioning, Saunders repeated that criticism.
"He still goes through that," Saunders said. "That's his biggest thing -- as a young player, being able to fight through adversity, being able to fight through when you get tired. He has his days."
Two minutes later, Saunders declared that Fabricio Oberto, and not McGee, was currently the number two center on the depth chart behind Brendan Haywood. Saunders was careful to leave open the possibility that McGee or someone else could overtake Oberto, stressing the "right now" portion of the quote, but the line spoke volumes. Saunders hasn't revealed anything about who has the upper hand in the battle for the starting shooting guard spot, but he's going out of his way to declare Oberto the backup to Brendan Haywood.
That should tell you something.
You get the sense that Saunders' misgivings are shared by other people in the organization. Blatche, Young and Dominic McGuire have been praised by players and coaches alike for their play and their serious approach to the game. McGee? Nothing of the sort. Some of the players seem a little fed up as well.
"I'm not really worried about showing him anything," Brendan Haywood said last Tuesday, in response to a question about what he's been doing to help McGee. "He's a professional. Once you get to this level, you go to worry about yourself. I think he's making strides, [but] like I said, he just has to do what he has to do. It's more on him than anybody else."
McGee, for his part, said his focus continues to be to work hard and improve. But he also admitted he didn't reach his target weight of 250 pounds, instead coming in closer to his playing weight last season. On the court, he continues to cycle between spectacular play and inconsistent effort. He made everyone take notice when he swatted away a shot out of bounds during last Thursday's scrimmage, but people probably forget that, on a previous possession, McGee was jogging down the court while his man was well ahead of him. McGee's teammates had to cover for him, which eventually left Young wide open in the right corner for a three.
A couple of his answers to reporters' questions also makes you scratch your head. When asked about what part of Saunders' offense best suits him, McGee said he liked "the fact that [Saunders] isn't afraid for the bigs to shoot the mid-range jumper." That's definitely not what the coaching staff wants to hear. Later, he said that he hasn't really tried to seek out the advice of Haywood and Oberto, saying he's learning from them just by observing. This despite Oberto saying Thursday that he's willing to work with McGee.
"Anytime I can help," Oberto said. "That is what happened when I was his age."
But before you get the idea that the organization is giving up on McGee, that couldn't be further from the truth. Despite being critical of his conditioning, Saunders still has high hopes for McGee. Saunders said Assistant Coach for Player Development Gene Banks, assistant coach Randy Wittman, who Saunders said worked a lot with Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, and even Saunders himself have worked and will continue to work with McGee individually. Saunders added that he does not envision sending McGee down to the Wizards' NBA Developmental League affiliate in Dakota this season because he still believes McGee can bring something positive to the team.
"He brings something to the team a lot of other guys can't, because he can block shots," Saunders said. "We'd like to get him in the type of shape where he could be like a [Chris] Anderson from Denver -- a high energy player that comes in, blocks shots and rebounds. [McGee] might only play five minutes in a stint, but he can change the game because of his energy and athleticism. That's why we're going to keep a look at him."
Saunders also did his part to remind us all to keep things in perspective.
"As a young player, I'm sure he's overwhelmed," Saunders said. "He's had three coaches in a year, and now he has a whole new system. What he learned last year, he's had to learn new things."
So clearly McGee has some work to do to continue to progress as a player. That work may prevent him from getting much playing time this season, which will probably disappoint a lot of you. Nobody denies his talent, and he is still very young, but he still has a lot of distance to make up, some of which he could have probably made up this summer.
At least McGee himself still has high goals.
"[My goal] is to get as much playing time as I can, whether it's coming off the bench or starting," he said.