Lakers report card: Dwight Howard’s navigated challenges, but will grow from them

This is the second in a series grading the Lakers’ efforts in the 2012-13 season.

Player: Dwight Howard, Lakers center

How he performed: 17 points on 57.8 percent shooting and 12.4 rebounds per game.

The Good: Howard’s mere return to the lineup in mid October established two things. The Lakers immediately received more on their return in Howard than they ever would with Andrew Bynum, who missed the entire 2012-13 season with the Philadelphia 76ers because of persistent knee injuries. This also showed that beneath Howard’s charismatic persona lies a player willing to put in enough work to return four or five months ahead of schedule. So even if Howard’s points and league-leading rebounds still marked his lowest numbers since the 2006-07 season, it’s necessary to cut plenty of slack for Howard.

Nursing pain stemmed from offseason back surgery, Howard lacked the timing, explosiveness and conditioning that made him a three-time NBA Defensive player of the year in eight seasons with the Orlando Magic. He could’ve sat out more than six games because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but Howard opted to play through it even if he suffered repeated whacks to it every day.

Health issues aside, Howard also showed a willingness to grow. Over All-Star weekend, Howard put more work into his conditioning and eliminated sugar out of his diet in hopes to compensate for his injury issues. Howard wore a Posture Shirt, a protective undershirt manufactured by Santa Ana-based company Alignmed that balanced his muscle and shoulder joints together. He stopped complaining about the Lakers’ inconsistency in featuring him on offense. Howard continued stressing the need to communicate on defense, while providing positive reinforcements to his teammates.

Even with the frustrations he had with Kobe Bryant’s high expectations, Howard showed genuine interesting in improving that relationship by visiting him in his Newport Beach residence shortly after suffering his season-ending torn left Achilles’ tendon. Add all those ingredients up, and Howard’s 21.6 points through seven games in April marked his highest output all season.

The Bad: Plenty of Howard’s on-court criticism seemed grossly unfair considering most of his struggles centered on his aforementioned injuries. But Howard epitomized in the Lakers’ first-round series sweep to the San Antonio Spurs that there remains tactical and emotional adjustments he failed to make. Lacking versatility to his post game, Howard allowed opposing players to consistently front him inside.

Their persistent physical play rattled him so much that he averaged 3.8 fouls in the regular season and 4.2 fouls in the playoffs. There remained too many examples where frustration got the best of Howard, whether it was yelling at Steve Nash for a botched pass, a teammate on a failed defensive rotation or to the official over a silent whistle. That lack of focus also carried over to the foul line where he shot 49.2 percent from the line. Howard had the right intentions. But as evidenced by his Game 4 ejection against San Antonio, it’s clear Howard couldn’t handle plenty of the added pressure and scrutiny in becoming the cornerstone of the Lakers’ future.

Grade: B

Assuming Howard resigns with the Lakers, he has plenty of room to grow both from a health and maturity standpoint. But as hard as it might be for Lakers fans to see this because of how the playoffs ended, it appears Howard’s at the beginning stages of figuring out what will eventually entail a storied career filled with many championships. His willingness to learn and adapt suggest he’ll take the right steps next season to make that happen.

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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com

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