I'm excited that JaVale McGee has been selected to participate in the 2011 NBA Slam Dunk contest (which he confirmed here). I like seeing my favorite teams' players showcased on All-Star Saturday Night, which remains one of my favorite three hours of television. It's fun, it's exciting and it's entertaining. Our franchise has never had any player in the Dunk Contest, and we haven't been represented in any Saturday Night competition since 2007. I think it's cool JaVale has broken both of those streaks.
But I realize that there will many who take the opposite approach to this news, because of the "style over substance" thing. The concern is that McGee will go for even more highlight plays, encouraged by the NBA's "enabling" of them with this honor. In fact, Craig Stouffer of the Washington Examiner has already thrown out this angle with a practice anecdote of McGee failing to box out.
While there's little doubt that the third-year center is one of the most exciting and athletic 7-footers in the league, this is the kind of move that reinforces habits the Wizards are desperate to break and that continue to hold McGee's development back.
Stouffer goes on to describe a scene where McGee lets Cartier Martin beat him for a tip-in, then takes the ball down the court, feeds Yi Jianlian for a layup, then pounds his chest. Randy Wittman stared at McGee and told him sarcastically that probably should "just stay out of rebounding drills."
The anecdote is very concerning, and I'm happy someone wrote about it, but I don't see the connection to the dunk contest. This is where I think the "style vs. substance" concerns go too far.
I've yet to hear any really good argument about why competing in the dunk contest and becoming a more fundamentally-sound player are mutually exclusive. Frankly, they're not. Most of the players who compete in a dunk contest are also players who improve, work hard and are students of the game. The argument that their bad habits are somehow "encouraged" by a dunk contest doesn't really hold water.
For one thing, players don't practice their dunks during the main part of practice. All those stories you hear about these guys choreographic these elaborate routines to get the crowd pumped up? They tend to happen after practice ends, or during free time. There's traditionally a period where the players mill around after the practice ends before changing and (if applicable) talking to the media. That's when the famous Gilbert Arenas/DeShawn Stevenson shooting contest happened, and it's usually when practicing dunks happens. Therefore, it's not like JaVale has to take all this time previously allocated to practice and instead devoting it to preparing for the dunk contest. He, like all other participants competing in the Dunk Contest, can do both.
So really, it comes down to a mindset thing, and here's where I depart from the organization's thinking if they make too big a deal out of him being picked. Instead of worrying about whether McGee's bad habits will be enabled, work even harder to fix those bad habits. Instead of equating style with bad play, explain and show to him what good style plays are and what bad style plays are. Explain to him that you're happy that he's in the Dunk Contest, but that you want to make sure it doesn't detract from getting better. Don't create a false dichotomy between substance and style; explain what good style is and work on the substance part.
Really, it all boils down to this point: the Wizards had to know McGee was a project when they drafted him, so treat him like one, even in year 3. There will be bumps and frustrations along the way, and feelings will sometimes need to be hurt.
But don't get to the point where you're potentially annoyed that he was selected to be in the Dunk Contest. Considering his combination of size and athleticism, there was a strong possibility it was going to happen anyway.