Every preseason, it seems, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard fires a few jumpers, stoking Magic fans who've long called for him to expand his range beyond the paint. And every subsequent regular season, Howard puts that jumper back on the shelf and keeps doing what he's best at offensively that isn't dunking, namely shooting hooks of the jump and rolling variety. Whenever asked why he's reluctant to shoot jumpers when the games count, Howard usually mentions a lack of confidence and comfort with the shot in game situations.
So when the Magic post footage of Howard working on his jump-shot with assistant coach Patrick Ewing and rookie center Daniel Orton after a preseason practice, as they did yesterday, it's business as usual.
But this case feels different.
Because Howard calmly, coolly, drilled two jumpers in his preseason debut against Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets, for which Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy praised him, saying he made "the right read" of Yao's defense on both occasions, as well as the time when Yao closed on Howard to take away the jumper, only to watch helplessly as he drove by him for a reverse layup.
Because a video of his offseason tutoring session with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, in which the former Rockets center shows Howard the intricacies of low-post offense, includes a few clips of Howard juking himself free for fadeaway jumpers.
Because, frankly, Howard might need to become a more powerful offensive force if Orlando is to win its first NBA championship.
I tend to believe Howard needs to develop more counter- and hesitation- moves in the post, as well as a softer touch with both hands, before extending his range out to the foul line or so. But, as Olajuwon expertly demonstrates in that must-watch video, sometimes the defense can take away all the easy avenues to the basket, necessitating even the most dominant of centers to face up and shoot. In this way, the jumper can be a sort of countermove, which didn't occur to me until watching the film, because I'm still learning this game.
Howard hasn't really needed to do that before. In nearly 20,000 regular- and post-season minutes at the NBA level, he's taken just 138 two-point jump-shots, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That's one two-point jumper for every 145 minutes played. Put another way, that's one two-point jumper for every 26 other two-point attempts. What's more, 80 of those tries came in his first two years in the league, when the Magic still primarily stationed him at power forward, with Kelvin Cato and Tony Battie manning the pivot.
The data suggest staying away from jumpers has, to date, been a wise move. Howard's scored 104 points on 138 two-point jumpers in his career for an unimpressive 0.754 points per shot.
Interestingly, the latter figure isn't entirely out of line with other notable centers. Last season, Tim Duncan produced 0.77 points per jump-shot. Joakim Noah scored 0.76. Al Jefferson and Andrew Bogut both posted 0.75. Of those players, however, only Duncan and Jefferson have made the J a regular part of their arsenals.
It's rare for a center to add a jumper to his game almost overnight, but David Lee and Chris Kaman both did last season, to great effect. Lee tried 184 jumpers at a 32.6 percent clip two seasons ago, compared to 413 at 43.1 percent last season. Kaman showed a similar improvement, attempting 54 jumpers in 2008/09 at 50 percent, upping the attempts to 345 the next year, albeit at a more reasonable 43.2 percent mark.
A designed play should never lead to Howard taking a jumper, no matter how confident he is, because he's typically too difficult to stop down low for the jumper to be a better option. But in those atypical situations, when he's facing a defense that can ably take away his hooks? That jump-shot can come in handy, particularly when he uses his speed, quickness, and instincts to free himself for a clean look.
I believe Howard now has the confidence necessary to let fly in real game action. I believe the Miami Heat's assembly of three top-ten players this summer, as well as Orlando's surprising playoff defeat at the Boston Celtics' hands last season, have forced him to take the game a bit more seriously. I believe he will demonstrate a more nuanced, effective post game this season than in years past. And I believe the threat of a jumper will necessarily keep defenses guessing.
But Howard has to prove himself first. Draining jumpers over Yao, who hadn't played in over a year before trying to defend Howard in those situations, in a game that doesn't count won't impress anyone.
However, I believe Howard has it in him to make defenses second-guess themselves when the games start to matter. I believe he'll blow his previous career-high scoring average of 20.7 points out of the water this season. I believe he'll give his teammates no choice but to look for him in the post as the first offensive option. I believe that assertiveness will in turn draw attention away from those teammates, freeing them to be more efficient weapons themselves. I believe he can do all these things without losing any energy on the defensive end.
In short, I believe in Dwight Howard and his ability to lead the Magic to a title. The improved jumper is merely a sign of his readiness to do just that.