Dwight Howard’s got 14 pro seasons and 1,129 NBA games under his belt, but the 32-year-old center made it clear as soon as he agreed to terms with the Washington Wizards last month that he plans to play until the ripe old age of 40 years old. How does Howard — an eight-time All-NBA selection and three-time Defensive Player of the Year whose career has spiraled in recent years, and who’ll start next season on a new team for the fourth straight campaign — plan to pull that off? First, by remaking his body, and then, by remaking his game … to, perhaps, an extreme degree.
Candace Buckner of the Washington Post caught up with Howard and two of his “small entourage of trainers” — Ed Downs of ProTERF Training and Justin Zormelo of Best Ball Analytics — ahead of his first season in D.C. to get a sense of how the veteran big man plans to return to prominence after a few up-and-down seasons. According to Downs and Zormelo, who began working with Howard before he started last season with the Charlotte Hornets, the first step was transforming Howard’s body to make him better suited to stand up to life in a league where the bulk to bang on the interior matters less than the quickness to guard out on the floor and fill the lane.
From a starting weight of 285 pounds with 12.5 percent body fat, Howard’s reportedly now “shredded at 265 pounds with 3.3 percent body fat,” and has reoriented his workout regimen toward track work, sprints, core and flexibility training aimed at eliminating the back issues that have trailed him ever since his final season in Orlando. Which, hey, that’s great! Way to lose weight and get healthy, Dwight.
It’s the second step, though — “to figure out how to change [Howard’s] game into what today’s style of play was,” and to where the league appears to be going in the future — that sounds like it might be a bit of a tougher ask. More from Buckner (emphasis mine):
While Downs pushed Howard’s body, Zormelo worked on his mind. Think more transition, less post-ups, Zormelo advised. Fear not the perimeter; embrace stretching your range closer to the three-point arc. Howard listened.
“When I came into this league, I was playing against the Shaqs, the Alonzo Mournings, the Jermaine O’Neals and it was more so a physical — I’m going to see who’s the strongest guy in the paint. It’s like an arm wrestling match for the big guys,” Howard says. “And nowadays, it’s not the same game. So it’s either evolve, adapt or get left behind.” […]
This year, the brakes are off. No more trial run. Zormelo wants Howard to raise his IQ on every possession — be the rebounder and screener while also looking for opportunities to dominate.
With all due respect to whatever spot-up shooting drills Downs and Zormelo have had him working on, the idea of Howard — a player who has always operated as a finisher rather than a creator and who, through 14 NBA seasons, has made a grand total of 95 shots from beyond 15 feet of the rim — trying to ape the advancements of 7-foot ja cks-of-all-trades like Durant and Davis, even if it’s only a general inspiration as Howard finds his “own version” of their growth, sounds pretty insane.
Davis was a prep point guard before a late growth spurt sent him skyrocketing toward the rafters and into the rarefied air of the country’s best big men. Durant’s been a perimeter-focused, point-producing sniper for as long as he’s had his hands on the rock, developing his post game in later years and only recently embracing part-time play as a center in the Warriors’ devastating small-ball looks. Reverse-engineering their growth seems like a bridge too far for a 32-year-old pivot who, at every stop along his journey, has reportedly been dead-set on one specific way for him to play: by getting a requisite and respectful amount of post touches so that he can establish interior dominance, even if such possessions more often end as punts than as points and even if Howard’s greatest offensive gift — setting mauling screens, knifing through the paint, drawing defensive attention to create openings for his teammates, and finishing lobs high above the rim — is the one he seems least interested in emphasizing.
The specifics vary — 2016’s “becoming a midrange shooter” becomes last year’s “becoming a 3-point shooter” becomes this year’s “evolving into my version of AD and KD” — but we’ve heard this sort of thing from Howard before. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to expand your skill set and advance your game, Howard’s perpetual stated interest in doing so can often come at the expense of doubling down on what he’s best at; there’s a reason many in Houston viewed streamlined young screen-and-dive rim protector Clint Capela over Howard as a superior fit for the future, even before the Swiss national’s breakout in the Rockets’ starting lineup.
A version of Howard that commits himself to creating daylight for John Wall and Bradley Beal, to rolling hard in the half-court and rim-running with a purpose in transition, and to attacking the glass and defending the paint again and again and again, irrespective of how many times he gets an entry pass on the block so he can commandeer a possession, can absolutely still be a very valuable player capable of helping the Wizards vault back into the upper half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. One who’s intent on proving that he’s adding all sorts of new wrinkles to his repertoire in Year 15, though, might only muddy the waters … and the guess here is that head coach Scott Brooks knows it. From Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:
“Last season was probably the most confident I’ve been in my career as far as just doing everything on the floor; handling the ball, shooting, being more of an offensive threat in iso situations and stuff like that,” Howard said. “I’m going to continue to work on that stuff.” […]
It will be up to head coach Scott Brooks how Howard is used and he thinks the eight-time All-Star is just fine the way he is.
“Definitely, the game has changed, but a lot of times with that change it still remains the same. You need a big and when you have a talented big, you use him,” Brooks said. “He brings a skillset and a talent that only a few guys in the league that can do.”
The question, now, is whether Howard’s more interested in showcasing his new skills than he is on maximizing his old ones. Yes, it’s an age of unicorns in the NBA, but it seems much more likely that Dwight will be most effective for this year’s Wiz by focusing on getting back to being a thoroughbred than by trying to pull off a pair of cosplay wings. If Howard’s able to take care of his prime objectives — screen-setting, rebounding, controlling the defensive lane, stretching the floor as a lob threat — while also adding the occasional dash of spice on the offensive end, then the Wizards could be in position to take a big step forward. But if Howard, Brooks and Wall can’t find the right balance, then one of the league’s most combustible rosters could wind up blowing up in a big way, scuttling Washington’s chances of making any noise in the shuffled-up East.
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