A strip on the size-18 Nikes of Washington Wizards rookie JaVale McGee bears a peculiar phrase, written neatly in black Sharpie.
“Kill + Mode = Cheese.”
Uh, come again?
Ask the 7-foot center the origin and he shrugs it off. “Oh, it’s just a saying,” he says dryly. But what does it mean?
“Well, if you’re in kill mode, like a mode where you feel like no one can stop you, and you just work hard and no one can stop you, then you get cheese - success,” McGee says. “It’s just something my cousin and I thought up in high school.”
Dig a little deeper into that 20-year-old mind. Watch him closely on the practice court or in the first five games of his career. He has taken advantage of every minute given him, producing impressive flashes, regardless of how limited or extensive the playing time. It becomes evident that “Kill + Mode = Cheese” is more than a saying.
For McGee, selected by the Wizards 18th overall out of Nevada in June’s draft, “Kill + Mode = Cheese” is a mantra. It echoed in his head Dec. 27, 2007, when he faced North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough, swatted the eventual NCAA player of the year’s first two shots into the stands and finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.
Kill + Mode = Cheese.
That game was McGee’s coming-out party. It was also when Wizards vice president of player personnel Milt Newton fell in love with McGee and sold team president Ernie Grunfeld on the super-talented, athletic prospect as a slender yet muscular pogo stick with a 7-6 wingspan and basketball-woven genetics.
His father, George Montgomery, was a second-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1985. His mother, Pamela McGee, was an NCAA champion and an All-American at Southern Cal, the winner of a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics and a WNBA title in Sacramento.
The draft experts remained unconvinced, believing McGee needed more time to hone his skills and bulk up to be ready to handle the battering that NBA centers absorb. And then there was this analysis from ESPN.com’s David Thorpe: “The D-League was made for players like McGee.”
“I saw that and said, ‘What?’” McGee says. “So I told myself I was going to work hard and be sure that, if I ever did get sent down to the D-League, everybody would say, ‘Huh? Why did they send him down there?’”
Although high on McGee’s potential, the Wizards didn’t expect to be able to count on him much this season. But last month, Brendan Haywood tore a ligament in his wrist and two weeks later had surgery that will cost him up to six months, making Etan Thomas the team’s only true center.
Suddenly, the transitional plan shifted into fast-forward. McGee used the preseason and first five games to make a case that he can offer serious contributions sooner rather than later. After just a small sampling, he has started to build a following.
“He can fly,” New Orleans’ Chris Paul says after a game in which McGee sent one of the guard’s pull-up jumpers into the stands. “He is easily one of the most athletic guys in the NBA. You can put him in that category with Dwight Howard.”
Lofty praise from arguably the best point guard in the game, but McGee sets his sights a little higher than playing on par with the Orlando Magic’s star center.
“It’s a compliment, but he said ‘like’ Dwight Howard,” McGee says. “Hopefully, I can work hard and be better than him.”
Achieving Howard-like status is within McGee’s reach, Haywood says.
“The most important thing for JaVale right now is probably the weight room because he has such physical tools as far as speed and jumping ability,” he says. “All he has to do is add the strength in, and then he turns into a Dwight Howard.”
Howard is becoming a McGee fan, too.
“I’ve been watching him a lot,” the center said Saturday. “I think he’s going to be a good big man in the future. He runs the floor real well. [He’s] active. He’s going to learn the game, and he’s got the right coaching staff and some great players around him. The Wizards are going to be a great team when he learns how to play the NBA game.”
McGee is proving himself a fast learner. During an 0-5 start, coach Eddie Jordan pointed out that the rookie and backup guards Juan Dixon and Nick Young were the team’s most consistent contributors.
“He has made his presence felt here and there,” Jordan said last week of McGee, who is averaging 7.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and a block in 17.3 minutes. “You almost wonder. We’re probably going to make a decision to just play him to get some experience and take some lumps.”
And there have been lumps. In a loss to Milwaukee, McGee went after a pass to center Andrew Bogut but in his overaggression left the basket unguarded. Bogut snagged the ball and scored the points that sent the game to overtime.
Two nights later, he caught two alley-oop lobs and missed both dunks because he had too much height and was trying - as he later admitted - to pull off too fancy a dunk. There have been frequent goaltending calls, and at times he finds himself out of place, scrambling to catch up to his assignment on pick-and-rolls.
But the Wizards can live with his faults because they came as a result of effort - not a lack of trying.
“It’ll come, but he’s got to slow down in his mind. Then you can think better, and you won’t make as many mistakes” guard Gilbert Arenas says. “He’s doing a good job now, but if we can take everything he’s doing and get him to do that, then he’ll be able to be dominant.”
Despite chances to earn more playing time and the expectations that teammates, opponents and fans are beginning to heap on his shoulders, McGee insists he feels no pressure.
“I was just taught to never fear anyone,” he says. “And I guess it just hasn’t hit me that I’m in the NBA yet. I just feel like I’m playing any other game. Just trying to get rebounds, trying to get blocks, try to score some points. It just hasn’t really hit me.”
Still? Not after a full preseason and five games? And not with the paycheck?
“Nah, I’m a rookie,” he chuckles. “We don’t get paid until the 15th.”
Kill + Mode = Cheese.