When Dwight Howard was 14, growing up in Atlanta, he got a bigger kick out of face-up bank shots than dunks.
“I never really wanted to dunk,” the 6-11 Charlotte Hornets center recalled Monday. “I said, ‘Once I start dunking, I won’t be able to stop.’ So they said ‘You need to start dunking on everybody!’’’
Thirteen NBA seasons later, Howard is still dunking on everybody, to an extent it’s changing how teams must guard the Hornets. Last season, according to Elias Sports Bureau, the Hornets scored off just 17 lob passes the entire season.
This season, entering Tuesday’s road game against the New York Knicks, the Hornets have completed 10 lob plays, with plenty more to come.
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The possibilities are endless and entertaining. All-Star point guard Kemba Walker says he’s never played with a big man of Howard’s explosive athleticism on the alley-oop. The closest Walker can recall is when he was a sophomore at Connecticut in 2010, throwing lob passes to 6-9 Stanley Robinson.
How would Walker describe feeding Howard, a future Hall of Famer? Joyful.
“It’s really exciting,” Walker said. “I’m always praying, ‘Just please: Grab it, catch it, dunk it.’ It’s just a feeling of joy!”
Joy for the offense, embarrassment for the opposing defense. Walker and Howard connected on two lob passes in the first half Sunday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Howard immediately noticed the reaction from Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau.
“I saw coach Thibs saying, ‘You’ve got to get in on the roll!’ and guys were saying, ‘Oh, man, you throw the ball that high and he jumps, what are we supposed to do?’ Howard said.
“Guys don’t want to get dunked on, and they’re afraid of repercussions. What happens after that is guys always (converge on the center) early, and that gives our 3-point shooters opportunities. And it opens up (driving) lanes for Kemba.”
An alley-oop is two points, but it’s also a message to the opposing team that affects behavior. A parallel in football might be how a long completion forces a defense’s safeties to play farther back, rather than aid in run support.
Howard is 31 now, with more than 32,000 NBA minutes of mileage. He was at his best on the alley-oop his first seven pro seasons with the Orlando Magic. There was such synergy back then, with point guard Jameer Nelson and forward Hedo Turkoglu, that this club had its own code words.
“We’d say, ‘Pineapple,’ and he’d know (the lob) is open,” Howard recalled. “Wow. We got so used to it, it was just easy.”
Howard is working to expand this play beyond himself and Walker. He wants to see rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, and now-injured Nic Batum, get in on the fun.
“It’s really about timing: Reading the defense, body language,” Howard said. “I’ve been showing those guys how to throw that pass, and when it can be most effective.”
“Like I told Dwayne: If he drives on the bigs, and throws that pass once or twice, the next time that big will be reluctant to come up and block the shot; he’ll stay back.
“Then, the next play, (Bacon) comes down that lane and dunks on that big man.”
Share the wealth, share the joy. Sounds like a good deal all around.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell