It's fair to say the general NBA community reached a consensus regarding the Orlando Magic this summer: for them to capture an NBA title, Dwight Howard must expand his offensive game and become a legitimate, two-way threat. It's not like Howard's a chump at the offensive end, as he's averaged 19.8 points per game and shot 59.3 percent from the floor since Stan Van Gundy took over as head coach in prior to the 2007/08 season. The issue is that his game lacks variety, although some of that criticism is misguided as well.
Howard drew a lot of attention this summer due to his workouts with Hall-of-Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, who taught him about the nuances of low-post offense in the NBA. But it's one thing to execute those moves at less-than-full speed against a 47-year-old man in an otherwise empty gym, and quite another to perform them at full speed against swarming NBA defenses.
The bad news for everyone else is that Howard has shown some growth in his game this season, although it is indeed quite early. Too early to draw many meaningful conclusions, in fact. But so far, he's showing more refinement at the offensive end, which certainly bears watching going forward.
HoopData.com tracks shot location and conversion for every player and team since the 2006/07 season. According to HoopData, Howard has converted 73.5 percent of his shot attempts at the rim--specifically, layups, tip-ins, and dunks--over that span. But away from the rim, he's converted only 40.2 percent of his two-pointers, showing a poor jumper and merely adequate touch on hook shots.
This season? Again, it's early, but Howard is 26-of-46 on two-pointers away from the rim, a 56.5 percent conversion rate which will prove incredibly difficult to sustain. But even if that figure drops 10 percentage points, he'll still become monstrous offensively. Consider the shooting splits of these other offensively inclined big men over the same span:
Stoudemire provides the best-case scenario for Howard expanding his offense. Similarly athletic, Stoudemire has a brilliant face-up game due to his reliable jumper and the threat of his powering into the lane off the bounce. And Gasol, to my eyes, has the best touch of any player in the league on jump-hooks. That's an important weapon, as it can be used even when opposing defenses leverage the center away from the basket.
Another sign of his improvement comes via the play-tracking service Synergy Sports Technology. Last season, Howard scored on 49 percent of his post-ups, not counting kickouts to teammates. This season, he's converted 54.2 percent of his post-ups into points. Only Elton Brand--yeah, I'm as surprised as you are--at 64.5 percent, has proven more effective, and he's getting half as many post-ups per game as Howard. This is all rather a long way of saying that Howard's been the league's most productive, high-volume scorer in the low post this season.
There should be no question that Howard has begun to assume more offensive responsibility; as of Sunday, only Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, and Kevin Durant were using more possessions than Howard this season. More importantly, he's delivering, putting up 22.4 points in just 30 minutes. It's early, but all signs point toward this season being Howard's finest at the offensive end, which bodes well for his Magic.