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What Dwight can learn from Tiger
by Dennis Hans / December 18, 2008

Dwight Howard - Icon Sports Media One can go overboard or push too far with golf-to-basketball analogies, but I’ve got one that could change Dwight Howard’s career.

A common flaw among dreadful golfers is the tendency to “hit from the top.” Also known as “casting,” as in casting a fishing line, a golfer who hits from the top breaks his wrists at the top of his backswing. In so doing, he loses power and accuracy while reducing his chances of making solid contact on a consistent basis. To make progress, he will have to learn to “retain the angle” late into the downswing — that is, keep his wrists cocked until they approach the hitting zone.

No one, not even Johnny Miller, has ever accused Orlando Magic season-ticket holder Tiger Woods of hitting from the top. He retains the angle, and on some swings his wrists are cocked to a greater degree on the downswing than they were at the top. The same holds true for many other golfing greats. It even holds true for Charles Barkley, who retains his angle on the downswing by bringing his swing to a screeching halt as it nears the ball — an innovation that, alas, has not served Sir Charles well.

A decidedly uncommon flaw among NBA players is the basketball equivalent of hitting from the top: a premature unhinging of the flexed wrist of the shooting hand. Howard has it, and it’s been especially obvious (at least to me) this season and last.

Just as there are dozens of ways to swing a golf club and be darned good (pausing during the downswing is not among them), there’s lots of stylistic and mechanical variation among good and great shooters. But I’ve been playing and watching basketball for a long time and I’ve yet to see a good shooter with the Howard-esque immediate unhinging. Howard himself did not shoot this way in high school or as a rookie, which was the last time he had a stroke worth polishing.

The shooter’s equivalent of the golfer’s top of the backswing is the spot at which he begins the forward motion of his stroke. It is at that spot where Howard starts to break his wrist. In essence, he’s following through before he has even begun his stroke.

Howard at the stripe has a back-and-forth shooting motion. This isn’t how he shot when he could shoot (2004-05), but lots of players do fine with that basic approach. The difference, generally speaking, is that they retain the angle for most of the “forth” segment of the stroke; with the breaking or snapping of the wrist (the degree and forcefulness varies) coming at the end of the stroke.

Howard, on the other hand, begins a long, slow and gradual unhinging of his shooting wrist right from the start of the “forth” segment. There’s no snap at the end because there’s nothing left to snap: you can’t snap and already-unhinged wrist. This prevents him from extending on his shot and is the cause of the lame-looking bent-arm finish.

This sickly shooting motion, which he’s constantly ingraining with his daily sessions practicing free throws, is a double whammy. It hasn’t worked at the line, and it shows no sign of working from the field. His inability to even attempt short- and mid-range jumpshots when the flow of the game presents such opportunities seriously impedes his offensive development.

What Howard thinks is a fundamentally sound stroke is actually a fundamentally unsound non-stroke. He has a long, lousy, slow-motion follow through where his stroke should be. How a rookie with a nice-looking shot ended up four years later with this monstrosity is a long story. (I told some of it here this past spring.)

I use the word “monstrosity” not to be cruel but for how Howard’s shot has been assembled. It’s been pieced together over time by various assistant coaches in the manner that Dr. Frankenstein constructed his monster. In both cases, the parts don’t add up to a smoothly functioning whole. It’s not what he had as a rookie, nor what some of his tall teammates have today.

Howard’s fellow frontcourt starters, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are great shooters. As for first reserve Tony Battie, I’m on the verge of raising my rating of his jumpshot from good to very good. Each has his own distinctive style (Lewis is loosey goosey with great wrist action, Turkoglu features a strong wrist snap but without the Lewis looseness, and Battie has more of an arm motion a la Dan Issel), yet each “retains the angle” well into the forward-motion of his stroke. This isn’t something they think about when shooting; it just happens.

The combination of sound mechanics tailored to their individual style and an accelerating stroke gives them directional accuracy and the ability to shoot with touch in all manner of flow-of-the-game situations from anywhere within their range. That’s what Howard should be aiming for, not pathetic gimmicks like lifting one’s arms in an awkward path, a la Tim Duncan, to draw a bogus foul in face-up situations, as Howard has done recently. Far better to be a shooter than a trickster, dependent on the kindness of poorly trained refs enforcing poorly formulated rules.

In a recent interview, Cleveland coach Mike Brown referred to the playoffs as “the real season.” I recently saw Hakeem Olajuwon at Howard’s age (23) in the 1986 “real season.” He was phenomenal as he took apart the defending champion Lakers, but only because he could shoot. For Howard to be great when the 2009 real season arrives, he’ll need to be able to shoot, and not just his expanding repertoire of righty and lefty short-range runners and jump hooks (some of which are more polished than others, but all in all an impressive collection for a young center). He’ll need to sink jumpers from 8 to 16 feet and improve at the line.

Howard has the talent and dedication to become that player, but it won’t happen if he stubbornly sticks to a shooting style that simply doesn’t work. If Tiger Woods can reconstruct a swing with only minor flaws to become even greater, as he has done twice (once with Butch Harmon and recently with Hank Haney), it should be obvious what Howard must do: He has to learn a new way to shoot, or, as I would recommend, immediately go back to his rookie way and build from there.

Did I mention I work cheaper than Harmon or Haney?

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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