Summer Workouts: This is the second installment in a summer-long weekly series that highlights the offseason conditioning — from cardio workouts to weight-lifting and diet — for some of the area’s top returning high school athletes.
As Frank Howard entered the basketball gym Monday at one of the Boys & Girls clubs in the District, the Paul VI guard wore no signs of where he’d been. Not a knee brace. Not a leg sleeve or pad. Not even a limp.
The only thing covering Howard’s left knee — the same knee in which he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus almost a year ago to the day during an AAU tournament — were a pair of baggy, orange Syracuse shorts, a nod to his future destination after committing to play for Coach Jim Boeheim in April.
In many ways, the player that will take the floor as a senior this winter at Paul VI and suit up for the Orange soon after isn’t the same one that earned third-team All-Met honors as a sophomore while shooting up the recruit rankings. Howard can still score with the best of them, but his versatility on both ends of the floor as a 6-foot-5 guard has shifted his focus to being more of a ball handler at Paul VI and Syracuse. That, along with the 10 months he was sidelined from the game he loves, is why for as torturous as his summer workouts typically are, Howard sees them as counted blessings in developing his game and character.
“I actually look at the injury as a positive. I would rather it have happened to me,” Howard said. “A lot of people look at me sideways when I say that, but it really changed my mental aspect. I look at the game a lot differently. Before I would just wake up and think ‘Man, I got to go work out.’ But I don’t take it for granted now, and over the last few months, I really picked it up and have been going hard. This is one of the most hardest working summers of my life.”
Monday’s hard work begins with several ball handling exercises, the most simple of which has Howard dribble the ball up and down the floor. As he makes his way back up the court, Howard breaks out into a hop skip, as if to stretch out his knees and legs before getting into the heart of his workout with trainer Hanif Hill.
Stretching has taken on a new meaning for Howard since his injury. Each morning, his mother wakes him up as she prepares for work so that he can do his stretching routine on his Bosu exercise ball. He also goes to rehab once a week for deep tissue massages, runs on the track and works out in the pool on occasion, all of which build on the rehab work Howard did initially with Paul VI strength and conditioning coach Brandon Broadnax.
These drills help generate the confidence Howard draws in not wearing a knee brace, which he labels a “crutch.”
“I know to be fully back, you don’t need a brace,” he said.
Howard uses the second set of drills to test his progression, gathering a pass after cutting from the top of the key and rising for a thunderous two-handed jam. He completes two more explosive dunks off the dribble, using his long arms to easily throw the ball down into the bucket.
But while his hops remain in tact, Howard admittedly still has some rust to work off of his shooting touch.
“Oooooo!” Howard yells while squirming up his face after his first free-throw attempt during a break bricks off the basket.
There’s no time for dwelling on his shot, though. Hill sends Howard and the two other players joining him down under the basket for a drill focused on footwork and attacking the baseline, followed by an exercise centered around creating space in the high post.
On the first try, Howard spins off the defender before fielding a pass from Hill for a lay-up. But on the next attempt, the opponent makes it tougher for Howard to get positioning near the elbow, resulting in some playful trash talk.
“I’ve got Frank in a trance over here,” the defender exclaims to which Howard flashes a grin. The lanky guard doesn’t respond. He just pushes off, spins away, takes the pass and rises for a tomahawk slam.
Following a water break, the three players break off and Howard begins several individual drills with Hill. With the notion that Howard will be handling the ball more for the defending WCAC champion Panthers, Hill takes the rising senior through an array of dribble moves around a stationary cone before rising for a jumper.
In doing so, Hill is reminding Howard of the rare skills he possesses as a 6-foot-5 combo guard. On defense, his long arms and height can disrupt point guards at the top of the key and prevent them from driving into the lane. On offense, Howard can rise above opponents for shots along the perimeter and around the rim.
“Let’s say they put him at the point guard position, he’s a lot taller and more athletic and can make plays off the dribble. Let’s say they put him at the two, the shooting guard position, he can still score on those guys,” said Hill, who also trains Kevin Durant and Gonzaga rising senior guard Bryant Crawford. “Frank’s playmaking ability is his strongest asset.”
Howard displays precision with his crossover and behind-the-back moves but his shooting struggles continue, leading to a frustrated yell.
“The lower you are, the easier it is for you to get squared up,” Hill says to his pupil.
Sprinkled within his final five attempts are two makes, but Howard is far from satisfied. As the No. 70 overall prospect in the ESPN 2015 class rankings, Howard holds himself to an even higher standard than the analysts.
I believe when you work so hard, you should be able to make every shot,” Howard said. “That’s what I hold myself to.”
Howard has shown flashes of his old form in several games on the AAU circuit with Team Takeover but come the winter, with the transfer of first-team All-Met Joshua Reaves and the graduation of point forward Evan Taylor, Howard wants to be back at the top of his game so that he can help the Panthers defend the WCAC, VISAA and Alhambra Catholic Invitational titles that they won as he watched from the sideline.
“We had a great run and I was very proud of them, but as a basketball player, nobody wants to sit out,” Howard said. “It was probably one of the roughest things I had to do, to sit out and watch.”
The final drills of the 75-minute session consist of Howard breaking down an invisible defender off the dribble, followed by a catch-and-shoot exercise at the elbow. The mid-range accuracy that Howard has come to be known for resurfaces on his final attempts, which sits well with Howard. Along with near perfection, Howard has been working to build back his stamina and leg strength so that when others get tired in crunch time, his skills remain at a high level.
“When everybody slows down with fatigue, I try to separate myself and make my move,” Howard said. “This whole experience really changed my mental. I know I sound like an old man saying this, but being off a year, you don’t take the game for granted. It could be taken away at any time, and that’s why I’m taking every opportunity and making the most of it.”
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