The happiest people in the building when Lakers rookie center Moe Wagner scored his first NBA points Sunday were the two veteran centers on the team’s roster.
JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler know what it means to be in that position — to be a rookie center fighting for a place on the floor.
“You remember what it was like, getting into games,” Chandler said. “You’re just wide-eyed. Everything is going 100 miles an hour. You put a lot of effort into talking to them throughout practice, shootarounds, all that kind of stuff just preparing them. As cliche as it sounds, they’re going to be the future. You want to send them off the right way.”
That moment was just a glimpse of what their dynamic is like regularly.
“All our bigs support each other,” McGee said. “Even though we all share playing time, we try to support each other and wish nothing but positive energy upon the other bigs, so it’s just like a circle of positive energy that just keeps growing between the bigs. It’s beautiful.”
There are common threads that bind them all. They compete against each other in practices. They’ve all been the tallest kid in class, unable to blend in even if they wanted to. And now, they’re part of a dwindling group of men whose place in the NBA is shrinking.
But all that is common to big men around the league. McGee insists this positivity is different.
“It’s special to us because we’re positive people,” he said.
The Lakers’ big-man situation has had ups and downs this season. Hamstrung by an unwillingness to give more than one-year deals to anyone but LeBron James, the team went into the season without much depth at the position.
McGee was the Lakers’ only true center who had experience and the trust of the coaching staff. Although entering his third season, Ivica Zubac wasn’t seeing much playing time. That led the Lakers to try smaller lineups which had forwards like Michael Beasley and Kyle Kuzma as centers even when that wasn’t strategically advantageous.
Wagner, whom the Lakers took with the 25th pick in the draft in June, suffered a knee injury during summer league that sidelined him for several months. He wasn’t available to play for the Lakers until Oct. 31 and he has scarcely been used.
The bigman situation came up during the much talked-about meeting between president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and coach Luke Walton. Not long after, Chandler reached a buyout agreement with the Phoenix Suns, with the intention of signing with the Lakers. While they waited for him, Zubac got a few more minutes.
Chandler’s signing didn’t convince McGee of any shift in the importance of his position league-wide.
The potential for awkwardness was there because McGee liked the Lakers’ reliance on him. He was getting more playing time than he had in years. But if there were any unease between them, it seems to have dissipated quickly.
“He’s the young gun, I’m the old vet,” Chandler said of McGee. “In no way am I trying to take anything from him. And it’s just good dudes. We’re all rooting for each other.”
Wagner got extended minutes Sunday because the Lakers were routing the Suns. He played 10 minutes and scored 10 points with three rebounds and an assist.
Afterward his teammates teased him about his newfound success.
That’s what happens when you’re part of the club.
“Moe, Zu, we all, Beas, Kuz, they’re little small bigs,” Chandler said. “We work together every single day pushing each other, trying to get better. It’s been a great environment. They invited me in as soon as I came, I tried to give them the knowledge that I had, and I share any of my experiences along the way to try to help them and it’s been great. I couldn’t ask for better bigs to be around.”