The buildup surrounding one of the most talented Washington Wizards teams in years can finally be sated now that Dwight Howard has been cleared for workouts.
The arrival of Howard, who participated in his first team practice Monday, completes the starting lineup and provides a big-man presence never before seen in the John Wall and Bradley Beal era. But since Howard missed nearly three weeks of preseason work while recovering from a buttocks muscle injury, the Wizards may explore simplicity while trying to build chemistry.
“I thought we looked good together [Monday]. We made some plays off each other that were really good,” Howard said following his first on-court experience with Wall. “Me and him and Bradley are going to have an unbelievable time in the pick and roll. Whenever we play off of each other, we should be great.
“We want to get a lot of pick and rolls in, a lot of movement, force guys to make decisions off the ball,” Howard continued. “We’ve got the right lineup to do it. Our coaching staff is amazing, so I think we’re going to have an unbelievable year.”
The injury placed Howard behind the curve. While teammates drilled through practices, Howard rehabbed. During his time off the court, Howard quizzed teammates on defensive concepts, backup center Jason Smith said.
Then there’s the offensive component and, like any new player, Howard has had to adapt to the team’s system.
After Monday’s practice, Howard admitted that he’s “still learning a lot of plays.” As a result, if Howard plays in the regular season opener against the visiting Miami Heat on Thursday, which is still up in the air, the limited preparation time could mean that he focuses on what he has already done over his long career.
While sitting in the Madison Square Garden visitors' locker room, Smith predicted as much last week after Howard left the team’s road trip to receive a pain-relieving injection.
“It’s tough to go through injuries like that, but he’s the type of player that he’s going to pick things up quickly,” Smith said as he snapped his fingers.
“As soon as we get him into practice and him going through plays, I’m sure he’ll — 15 years!” Smith said, highlighting Howard’s experience in the NBA. “He’s been on five different teams, so he’s going to be able to pick up different plays like that. And knowing him, it’s not like he’s popping for threes or he has to learn this play or that play. It’s him: Go set a screen and dive to the basket.”
Last season, the Wizards averaged a paltry 0.98 points per possession on scoring plays involving the screener in pick and rolls. Though previous center Marcin Gortat was an expert screen setter, the Wizards did not rely on him for scoring, and their points-per-possession average ranked near the bottom of the league, according to NBA.com.
In one practice with teammates, however, Howard used the play to start developing a bond with teammates.
“The guy, he’s smart. He has a high IQ,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “He sets great screens, and he rolls and he finishes around the rim. He’s as athletic as anybody in the league. I thought he had good chemistry with all of our guys.”
When asked how long he suspects it will take to form chemistry, Howard simplified the process.
“It just depends on our communication,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to talk through things and just play. So those two things: communication, playing with each other — getting to learn each other. I know me not being on the court for the summer, for the preseason, is going to be tough, but these guys are great. So we should be fine.”