Dwight Howard is no dinosaur. His 20 points and 15 rebounds in Friday’s Charlotte Hornets victory over the Atlanta Hawks shouted that.
However, what Howard does on offense is of a prior NBA age. Big men these days – think Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns or New Orleans’ Anthony Davis – like to pull up from long range or go one-on-one off the dribble.
Howard, a future Hall-of-Famer in his 14th NBA season, is not that.
“He’s a true post-up center: Size, strength, skill,” said power forward Marvin Williams. “I’ve never played with anyone quite like Dwight.”
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Most of the current Hornets haven’t. There is some similarity to center Al Jefferson, who played in Charlotte from 2013 through 2016, but that’s a superficial comparison. Jefferson played mostly below the rim and depended on a variety of fakes. Howard is bigger and more athletic and explosive.
In just two regular-season games (the Hornets are 1-1 entering Monday’s road game against the Milwaukee Bucks), we’ve seen the learning curve in adjusting to Howard, a 13-season veteran pointed toward the Hall of Fame. He is averaging 15 points, 15 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. However, he is also averaging 4.5 turnovers.
Howard, 31, is playing for his fifth NBA franchise. There has been a learning curve at each new stop, starting when the Orlando Magic drafted him No. 1 overall out of high school in 2004. He understands better than anyone that there will stumbles along the way.
“Most (big) guys, when they catch the ball at the top (of the key) or in pick-and-roll, they’re looking to get off the 3,” Howard said. “Back when I first came in, it was look first inside-out. It’s an adjustment – I get it.
“I talked to some of the guys (Friday) night: ‘There are going to be points when I’m frustrated, there are going to be times when you’re frustrated.’ We’ve just got to stay patient with each other – understand it’s a process and to play together.”
That probably falls on no one more than point guard Kemba Walker. A first-time All-Star last season, Walker is averaging 25 points, along with 6.5 assists and five rebounds. His facilitating and organizing responsibilities increased when shooting guard Nic Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow.
Walker needs to figure out how best to get the ball to Howard as deep in the lane as possible without overpassing and adding to the Hornets’ turnover problem (they committed 38 in the first two games).
“It’s a really big adjustment for me. I’ve never played with a guy like Dwight,” said Walker. “Me and Dwight, we communicate all the time to be on the same page.”
The bridge in all this is coach Steve Clifford. He spent five seasons in Orlando coaching Howard as a Magic assistant and another with Howard on the Los Angeles Lakers staff. Clifford’s presence was a factor in the Hornets’ comfort trading for Howard (from the Hawks) last June.
Clifford said Friday getting the best out of a true low-post scorer is a complicated undertaking.
“To me, it’s the hardest thing to do; and (Howard) knows this because we went through it in Orlando,” Clifford said. “It’s easy to look out there and he looks open. But then, when you watch the film and slow it down, it’s not always easy for (his teammates) to see it” in real time.
NBA offenses in general have morphed toward more pick-and-roll plays and fewer true feeds into the lane.
“The post-up game and being able to find guys inside, requires a lot more team coordination,” Clifford said. “You can teach pick-and-roll basketball – this guy is a good ballhandler, this guy is a good shooter, these three guys can shoot – in a day, with how smart these guys are. (Refining) the post-up game takes time.
“I remember it took about 30 games to get used to playing with Al (Jefferson) and that was a totally different (dynamic) than Dwight. The things Dwight can do, Al couldn’t begin to do because Al wasn’t as big. Al was outside (the paint). The post-up game takes much, much longer to get good at.”
The rewards, Clifford said, could be major.
“When you get the ball in the paint, it (facilitates) a quick shot. You don’t have to move. And you’re fouled more. It collapses the defense more, and (Howard will pass) it out.”
An adjustment, for sure, but worth the wait, Howard says:
“There are going to be some really good games and some really bad games. But if we stay together, we’ll be fine.”