Dwight Howard’s primary job for the Sixers is not to offer the team’s stars wisdom through the media. If it was, though, he’d be off to a strong start.
The Sixers’ backup center met virtually with Philadelphia-area reporters Thursday for a second time and was again enthusiastic and expansive in his comments about sacrificing for the good of the team and seeking to help Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
He sounded fully on board with head coach Doc Rivers’ description of his role.
“Yeah, we’ve had multiple conversations,” Howard said. “He just wants me to be Dwight. Go out there and dominate the paint. Teach the young guys. Be an agitator — get under people’s skin, be physical. All the things that I try to provide for the team, he wants me to do it at the highest level I can every single night. He’s told me my role from the beginning. I’m super excited about him just telling me what he expects of me every night and what he expects of me in the locker room, not just on the court … as far as teaching and being the right example for the younger guys.”
There’s been minimal transition time for Howard, who clinched his first NBA title with the Lakers on Oct. 11 and is still familiarizing himself with his teammates’ names. He initially referred to Shake Milton as “Sheck” before dishing out some praise on the 24-year-old guard's work ethic and attitude.
However, there shouldn’t be a dramatic change in his on-court responsibilities. He played a career-low 18.9 minutes per game last season, a figure that will likely drop as long as Embiid avoids major injury. Rivers and the Sixers will want Howard to pull down rebounds, anchor the defense when he's on the court and score efficiently near the hoop. His 72.9 field goal percentage in 2019-20 was by far the best of his 16 NBA seasons.
To hear Howard tell it, he already made the attitude shift necessary to check off those unselfish and mostly unglamorous boxes ahead of last season.
“Before the season started with the Lakers last year, I just promised myself that whatever I had to do for the team, I’d be willing to do it,” he said. “I know there’s always been a perception about who people think I am and my character on the floor and off the floor. I just wanted to change that perception and allow my true, authentic self to flow every single day. By sacrificing all the things that I would necessarily want from myself as a player — any player would want to play big minutes, any player would want to play a big role on a team, be able to score, do all that stuff — but for our team to be successful, I just need to be Dwight and realize that I’m more than enough.
“I don’t have to score 30 points to help our team win; I don’t have to be on the court all the time to help our team win. It was just a mindset that I had to change. It really helped me. It helped our team, and I’m glad that I was able to not allow my past to affect my future.”
The 2019-20 Lakers had several respected senior players happy to pass along advice besides Howard, including Rajon Rondo, Jared Dudley and, of course, LeBron James. In Philadelphia, it seems Howard hopes to observe a bit less and spend more time actively instilling lessons and principles.
He thinks the Simmons-Embiid duo should follow the blueprint of James and Anthony Davis.
"... I’ve been in that situation multiple times, going to a team that has another star — Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, L.A., D.C. — playing alongside other stars," Howard said. "Sometimes it can be difficult because you want to be that guy, and watching AD and LeBron, everything they did was together.
"They worked out together, they ate together, they rode bikes together. We called them the brothers. They were always playing together — playing video games, doing something. … Ben and Joel, they have to be that way. They have to know each other so much on and off the court that when they’re playing, it’s just natural. ‘OK, I know Jo needs a touch right now, let me get him an easy bucket.’ ‘Ah, Ben is frustrated, let me set a screen for him, get him a couple dunks, couple shots at the rim just to get him going.’
“Once you’re willing to give yourself up, great things tend to happen for you. … I can see that in Ben and Jo. Those two guys together, putting aside any ego, pride or anything, and saying, ‘Hey, we’re both for one mission, and that’s to win a championship, and it starts and finishes with us two.’ And I saw that with LeBron and AD. They put everything on their shoulders. They knew they had guys around them but it was, ‘OK, LeBron. OK, AD. We’ve gotta do this, it starts with us. We’ve gotta be on the same page at all times.’ And they did a really good job of it.”
Approximately three weeks before he plays his first regular-season game as a Sixer is far too early to evaluate Howard. How he fares backing up Embiid is what matters most, in addition to whether his media messaging resonates behind closed doors.
We’ll reserve any sort of judgment other than to note he hasn’t taken a false step so far — besides with Milton’s first name, if we’re being exceedingly harsh — and sounds genuinely excited about what’s ahead.
“Playing alongside Jo and Ben, I think for me it’s just giving them a sense that they can do anything,” he said. “For Joel, it’s just pushing him every single day to know that he’s the best, and every time he steps on the floor he has to be the best player on the floor — whether that be practice, in the weight room, in the training room, during all the games. It’s ‘I’m the best player on the floor. I’m going to show it through my actions on offense and defense.’
“For me, it’s really just cleaning up their mistakes, pushing them to be the best and just providing them with knowledge through my experiences. I see so much potential in Ben and Jo that I just want to see them succeed. I see so much potential out of those two — what they can bring to a team, the championships that they can have — just all the blessings they can get from playing this great game of basketball. I really just want to be that person to help push them toward their greatness.”
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