My 30-minute Dwight Howard free-throw fix
The Orlando Magic’s Dwight 'Superman' Howard, shooting a dreadful .595 from the line through March 31, can shoot 70 percent or better the remainder of the season and in the playoffs — and he won’t have to learn a single new thing to do it.
He merely has to apply his amazing gift for mimicry to himself, imitating the technique, timing, rhythm and feel of his rookie free-throw stroke.
Over a four-month stretch in his 2004-05 rookie season, covering 292 attempts, Howard shot .709 at the line. After a shaky .546 November start, he shot .714 in December, .709 in January, .604 in February and .770 in March. That’s three months out of four above 70 percent — a mark he has yet to reach in any subsequent month.
This season he has yet to reach 63 percent; his 'hottest' month so far is January’s .624.
Howard followed his promising .671 rookie year with seasons of .595 and .586, despite the advantage of having many more per-game attempts (5.0 as a rookie followed by 7.3 and 8.1). This season he’s up to 11.2 per game, which makes a great contribution to winning by getting the Magic into the bonus early and often and saddling opposing big men with foul trouble. But it also means he’s leaving far more points on the table than ever before.
Howard’s poor percentage would be confounding if he shot the ball today (and in seasons two and three) the same way he shot it throughout that four-month rookie groove. Fortunately, he doesn’t. The stroke may look the same to casual viewers, local sports media, and Magic coaches and executives, but there are mechanical and rhythmic differences that explain why Howard’s distance control — the cause of most of his misses — is far more erratic now than then.
During that mid-season rookie run, Howard had a more compact arm motion, making for a shorter, crisper stroke. He coordinated his arm motion with a subtle, synchronized, downward bending of his knees. Even though he had the same lame-looking bent-arm follow through that he exhibits today, that idiosyncracy did not prevent a rhythmic, smoothly accelerating stroke. If he had stuck with it he’d probably be shooting 75 percent or better this season.
In his post-rookie seasons the arm motion has lengthened and the downward leg action has vanished. Thus, there’s no leg action to synchronize with his arms. Instead, he rises from a semi-crouch and relies solely on a longish back-and-forward arm motion.
If Howard shot well with this method, that would be fine. The object is to put the ball in the basket, and there’s a rich variety of styles among tall guys who shoot well. But three years is far too long to stick with a style that, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, doesn’t work for you.
Here’s the likely reason Howard does: He has fine directional accuracy, a nice arc and good ball rotation devoid of any Shaq-style sidespin. From his vantage point at the line, the shot usually looks pretty good as it leaves his shooting hand and rotates beautifully directly toward the basket. He also goes on mini hot streaks within games and shoots well in practice, though he’s apparently unaware that it’s common for bricklayers to get on a roll in this artificial setting, where you take one relaxed shot after another with no long stretches of running, banging and sitting between attempts.
All of the above could lead him to believe he’s on the right track and that consistency is just around the corner. But he can’t sustain the hot streaks or gain that elusive consistency because his distance- related range of error is so great. If that arm motion is just a wee bit off, the result is a long clanker or way-short miss. Good shooters don’t miss so frequently by such wide margins.
Howard needs to think of these distance-related misses not as a mystery but as an unavoidable consequence of a flawed delivery. Three seasons and countless hours of practice haven’t reduced the percentage of such misses. There’s no reason to think another 50,000 game-and-practice attempts with the same delivery will produce a positive result.
Over the past few years I’ve occasionally brought these differences to the attention of various members of the Magic organization, to no avail. At least on this matter, its people are as clueless as the Miami Heat’s. As I explained repeatedly to Pat Riley and company, the best bet for a quick fix for Shaquille O’Neal — who went from bad to worse with the Heat — was to go back to what had worked (relatively speaking) in the past. What I didn’t know at the time is that Riley and his assistants, Stan Van Gundy and Bob McAdoo, had an even worse effect on Alonzo Mourning, who by center standards was an outstanding free-throw shooter at Georgetown and Charlotte but immediately hit the skids in Miami.
Overall, Van Gundy has done a terrific job with the Magic. But if he or assistant coach Patrick Ewing had a solution to Howard’s shooting woes, Howard wouldn’t still be shooting the same old way with the same old results.
The best hope for a late-season quick fix is for Howard to mimic the timing, rhythm, form and feel of his rookie stroke. I’ve got the goods on tape, and I can help him reconnect with that long-dormant muscle memory in a session or two before or after practice. It’s not complicated, and learning something old is much easier than learning something new.
That won’t help Howard with his other shooting challenge — developing an 8-to-16-foot jumper that he can shoot in planned, spontaneous and improvisational situations against tall defenders (something he already does well with his lefty and righty jumphooks inside of 8 feet, which should remain the bread-and-butter of his repertoire).
As I explained last summer to assistant general manager Dave Twardzik, the optimal long-term solution is for Howard, through summertime experimentation, to figure out a jumpshooting style that works for him and the position he plays. Once he has that mastered, then he can adapt that style to his free-throw delivery. He’s been doing it backwards for four years now, and neither his current or rookie free-throw style is likely to resemble any workable jumper he develops.
I also explained to Twardzik how Howard might proceed with that experimentation, but what I didn’t know is that Howard and the Magic had already set out on a backwards course for the summer of 2007, hiring a private shooting coach and having him emphasize the free throw. Once training camp rolled around Howard’s care was transferred to Ewing. He’s heading for a third consecutive season under 60 percent at the stripe, and he’s taken so few jumpshots in game situations that he still has no idea — after 320 pro games! — if his jumper works. It’s still not a spontaneous, instinctive part of his game.
Granted, there’s a silver lining to that dark cloud: You can’t fall in love with a jumper you never shoot. No one would be calling Howard 'Superman' if his offensive game resembled that of Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett or LaMarcus Aldridge and he averaged three free-throw attempts per game. Then again, Amare Stoudemire proves that, used judiciously, a sweet jumper can enhance one’s power game so that you can continue to live at the line and shoot a high percentage from the field.
In any event, with the playoffs just around the corner it might be risky to attempt a jumpshot makeover. But recapturing his rookie free-throw form is a decidedly easier task — one that could spell the difference between a first-round exit and a trip to the second or even third round.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and the Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
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