The Strange Case of Javale McGee's Defense

Last week, we featured some of Brendan Haywood's very impressive defensive numbers, and also mentioned some of those posted by Andray Blatche.  But what about the team's very young big-man prospect, Javale McGee?

Last season, his reputation was as someone maybe even more physically gifted than expected, but who wasn't yet advanced enough to do the sorts of things to enter the palace of good play.  This season, he hasn't seen the floor enough to change any judgments, and what he's done while he's been on the court hasn't helped his cause either.

This seems to be a situation where the numbers back up the reputation.  The stats, and some thoughts on his future, after the jump.

In Javale's rookie season, he blocked shots at the 31st highest rate of any rookie big man (playing 300 minutes or more) ever (going back to the early 70s, since blocks weren't always tracked), blocking more than 5% of shots.  (Some other notable names:  Haywood checks in a few spots lower at 34th, and Jim McIlvaine is 4th.)  In (very) limited minutes this season, he's swatting at a Manute Bol-esque 11% rate.  (How Bol-esque?  Check this out.)  He also got his fair share of defensive rebounds and a quite a few steals for a big man.

Nevertheless, his advanced defensive stats have been awful.  Very unusually so for a big man.  His career defensive rating so far is 109, which is bad.  Most of that was generated last year, when he registered a very unusual season.  Of big men of any age who have blocked shots at a 4% or higher rate, and applying a very low minutes threshold, only McGee and 3 others have posted defensive ratings of 110 or worse, with the others being Chris Mihm, Robin Lopez, and Robert Swift.    Taking a look at the full list of players who have blocked 4% or more with a 108 or worse, there are some big names on there.  Rick Smits makes two appearances, Brendan Haywood in 07-08 makes the list (perhaps helping McGee's case), Lamarcus Aldridge is on there, and there's that Jim McIlvaine again.

This isn't just a "defensive rating" phenomenon, however.  Javale's on/off defensive plus/minus makes a perhaps even worse case for his defensive performance.  Last year, the Wizards' defense was 4 points per 100 possessions worse with McGee on the court than off.  That was enough to take the team's defense from the merely atrocious to the sublimely horrendous, allowing more than 117 points per 100 possessions.  By basketballvalue.com's reckonings, McGee still comes off poorly, though not so badly relative to others in the league. McGee came through looking better than others on the team, and there are many, many names, some of with good defensive reputations, who posted worse numbers.

I spent some time on 82 games looking back at recent big men rookie performances, and came up with very few comparably bad defensive on/offs.  Some of the players I considered likely suspects actually weren't nearly as awful as I expected.  Eddie Curry's Bulls were only slightly worse with him.  Channing Frye's Knicks were better with him.  In fact, among big men who have been in the league long enough to have a track record, and who actually play like big men (I'm not considering wanna-be small forwards like Bargnani), I haven't come up with a comp.  I did, however, find some very recent, somewhat similar players.  Marc Gasol had even worse numbers than McGee last year.  

One more figure to note:  his counterpart PER numbers were bad.  On average, opposing centers produced at essentially an all-star level.

Put it all together and what does it add up to?  An athletically gifted big man who has exceptional volleyball-type skills, but who on net probably isn't really helping with his weak-side defense and who has had a poor showing with his man-to-man defense.  (Unfortunately, Jim McIlvaine didn't make it into the plus/minus era.  I'd have been very interested to see what he looked like.  McGee might, however, already be more advanced offensively than McIlvaine was.)

This is what Draft Express had to say about McGee's defense before the 2008 draft:

After struggling mightily with his on the ball defense during the collegiate season, McGee appears to be making strides as a man to man defender. While the players that he was pegged against were not anywhere near the caliber of the draftees he’s going to be matched against in the upcoming weeks, he did a very nice job of eliminating any separation that opposing offensive players have created. The added explosiveness that JaVale has added has enhanced his closing speed on the defensive end, as if his shot blocking ability weren’t already enough. McGee has already established himself as one of the elite help-side defenders in the draft and seems to be making the right steps to becoming a more complete defender.

So, what might the future hold?  Unfortunately, there is very little to go on--there are so few analogous situations of players who are so statistically productive on defense while so apparently hurting the team's defense, that we just don't have many examples to work with, particularly since the publicly-available plus/minus on/off numbers go back less than a decade.

Perhaps the most hopeful example is the close comp I mentioned earlier--Marc Gasol.  His plus/minus situation has completely turned around this season, with the Grizz performing better on defense with him on the court.  There are also, of course, prominent examples at other positions of players reforming their on/off defensive performance.  

So, the stats certainly don't argue for writing him off, but neither does anything seem to guarantee that he will progress.  What do you think?

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