OKLAHOMA CITY – Long after the balls stopped bouncing and the shoes stopped squeaking, Lakers center Dwight Howard stayed in one place that has haunted him for most of his eight-year career.
The free throw line.
Howard stayed there following morning shootaround Friday hoping the extra work could improve his career-low 46.9 percent mark when the Lakers (9-10) visit the West’s top-ranked Thunder (15-4). Lakers guard Steve Nash joined him, a welcome development considering he’s shot 90.4 percent from the line during his 17-year career. Lakers player development coach Phil Handy helped out, too.
“Do we talk about free throws?” Howard said. “No. We talk about games and how we can win and get better.”
Howard was lying. Nash at various points demonstrated a follow-through motion and gave him constant feedback while Howard shot free throws.
“He was just suggesting some things, but it’s not something we’ve already talked about or anybody else has suggested,” Howard said. “My mind cannot get clouded with everybody telling me how to shoot a free throw. I just have to go up there and shoot it my way and not get caught up in what everybody else is saying. That’s when I miss.”
That’s happened plenty of times lately.
Both the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets adopted the so-called “Hack a Dwight” strategy where they foul Howard before crossing midcourt and hoping his misses at the foul line yields extra possessions. Although Howard went a combined 17 of 37 in both of those losses, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has remained highly supportive of his star center. He scoffed at the idea of benching him out of belief Howard will soon correct his errors. D’Antoni also blamed the Lakers defensive inconsistency for both losses. And D’Antoni credited Howard for making his first free throw to inhibit New Orleans from intentionally fouling him in the team’s loss Wednesday to the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant, who recently has acknowledged telling Howard to constantly work on his foul shots, attributed the center’s career 58.4 percent mark from the foul line as a by product of the way U.S. players wrongfully develop.
“AAU and all these other camps, they pretty much wanted him to play inside the paint his entire career ever since he was 12 years old,” said Bryant, who spent most of his childhood playing basketball in Italy. “They wanted him to dunk everything, finish everything and he didn’t want to shoot it [from the outside] because he’s bigger than everybody. As a consequence, they left out the shooting aspect of his game. You contrast that with some of the European players who grow up, they’re taught at a early age on how to play all aspects of the game, ball handling, shooting. I think it’s really just about our system in the states and how we teach kids how to perform.”
No matter. Bryant highlighted how another prominent Lakers center handled his poor foul shooting. Although Shaquille O’Neal posted similar numbers from the free-throw line in both the regular season (52.7 percent) and playoffs (50.4 percent), Bryant noticed a different mindset.
“Shaq had a tough time at the free throw line, but he got to a place in critical stretches of ball games where he really knocked them down,” Bryant said. “Maybe they were only 50 percent, but it seemed like in games in the big ones where he didn’t miss them. He got to that place just by working. It meant a lot to him. He took on that responsibility to make them.”
How does Howard make that next step?
“It’s just facing the issue, dealing with it and taking it on head first and saying, ‘It’s something I have to accomplish and something I have to master,'” Bryant said. “I think he will.”
Howard’s work with Nash could mark one of those moments.
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