Of all the United States citizens who earn their livings playing professional basketball, JaVale McGee might have ranked among the least likely to be chosen to represent USA Basketball at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
McGee has been in the NBA for 13 seasons and only three of those ended with him as a double-figure scorer. He never has been to the All-Star Game. He has started fewer than half of the games in which he has appeared.
When the senior men’s national team needed a last-minute replacement, though, McGee got the call, according to multiple reports. How far down the list of candidates he ranked is impossible to say as yet; Hall of Famer Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball executive director, did not meet with the media as scheduled Friday afternoon because the team’s two roster changes could not yet be made official.
Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love withdrew after joining the camp following a season shortened by a significant calf injury. McGee got his spot. Wizards guard Bradley Beal cannot participate in Japan, according to reports, because of “health and safety” protocols. His place reportedly will be taken by Spurs wing Keldon Johnson, who had been in camp as a member of the Select Team that practiced against the senior team.
The two players chosen to fill roster gaps mean this team now has three players who scored fewer than 13 points per game this past season, and that the U.S. has two fewer deep shooters than planned. Neither Johnson nor McGee excels in that area.
The circumstances surrounding the senior men’s national team in advance of these Olympics are starting to resemble those from 2004, when so many players three years after 9/11 said they believed the security was not sufficient to make them comfortable. Tracy McGrady declined a spot on the team, and so did point guard Mike Bibby. Among others who declined invitations, for various reasons, were Kenyon Martin, Elton Brand, Ray Allen and Vince Carter. For some of them, it would have been a first opportunity to compete for a gold medal. It didn’t matter.
It mattered to the team, though, which only won a bronze medal.
“We wanted gold, but I’m taking anything right now. That’s the way it is,” forward Shawn Marion said back then. “At least we’ll go home with something. We won’t go home empty-handed.”
The choice of McGee to replace Love does address the 2021 team’s initial lack of defensive presence in the frontcourt. Beyond 6-9 Heat center Bam Adebayo, the team’s only true big was Love, who often plays away from the goal on offense. Johnson, ideally, gives the team physicality on the perimeter.
Three of the players also are competing in the NBA Finals — Devin Booker of the Suns and Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday of the Bucks — and that series now could end as late as Thursday, with the U.S. scheduled to play its first pool game three days later. That is against France, No. 7 in the FIBA world rankings, by far the toughest opponent in the group.
“I don’t have any concern,” Bulls All-Star guard Zach LaVine told reporters. “I think we’re the best basketball players in the world. We’ve got to go out here and get the job done regardless. I don’t think anybody is going to feel bad for us.”
After consecutive gold medals in 2008, 2012 and 2016, it’s easy to forget what happened in 2004. That U.S. team wound up being the youngest since NBA players were permitted to compete in the Games starting in 1992, and lost its first pool game by 19 points to Puerto Rico, another by four to Lithuania and a semifinal game by eight to Argentina. The bronze medal represented the only time the USA failed to win gold in the seven Olympiads with pro players.
This U.S. team already has lost twice in exhibition play, to Nigeria and Australia, and that was with Beal as the team’s third-leading scorer. Blazers superstar Damian Lillard said he was not expecting Love to withdraw but he could not express surprise given the unusual nature of the past two NBA seasons, both impacted significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a blow to lose those guys, but we’ve got a lot of great players on this team, a lot of versatility on the team,” Lillard said. “It’s a team full of the best players across our league. We just had a good practice and a hard practice and everybody seemed committed, to me. I don’t see anybody wavering.”
It already had been a curiosity to include Love on the roster after a season in which he averaged 12.2 points for the Cavaliers and played only 25 of 72 games because of the injury. It could be justified, at least, because Love is a career 37 percent 3-point shooter and consistently one of the NBA’s best rebounders. He played only 15 minutes combined, though, in the team’s three exhibitions, then withdrew Friday because the injury hasn’t permitted him to reach peak form.
Replacing him with McGee, to say the least, is curious. McGee averaged 7.3 points in 46 games and only two starts for the Cavs and Nuggets. He is a career journeyman who has scored only 5,856 career points and whose only above-average skill is shot-blocking. He has been a part of three NBA championship teams, however.
Johnson averaged 12.8 points and 33 percent deep shooting in this, his second season in the league. He averaged 5.5 points in three exhibitions to date in an average of 13 minutes per game.
The Pistons’ Saddiq Bey, also on the Select Team, recorded nearly the same scoring average this past season as Johnson but was far superior as a shooter (38 percent, 175 makes). He’ll have to wait four years to see if there’s a spot in the Olympics for him. Or for more issues to develop, which does not seem impossible.