Dwight Howard has a clear role in mind with the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s had multiple conversations with Doc Rivers about what the head coach expects from him, and it consists of what you’d probably expect.
“He just wants me to be Dwight,” Howard said when he spoke to media at training camp on December 3. “Go out there and dominate the paint, teach the young guys, be an agitator, get under people’s skin, you know, be physical. All the things that I try to provide for the team.”
“[Rivers] has told me my role from the beginning. So I’m super excited about him just telling me what he expects from me every night, and what he expects from me in the locker room. Not just on the court but what he expects off the court from me, as far as teaching and being the right example for the younger guys.”
It’s not too difficult to say the right things to the media, especially for a 17-year NBA veteran aiming to make a strong first impression on a new team. But Howard’s perspective and eagerness to help lead the Sixers and support young players like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid has seemed totally genuine over the last couple of weeks.
In his first call with reporters as a Sixer in late November, Howard acknowledged that ego was one of the things that held him back in the past. He emphasized that he’s learned how important sacrifice is, understanding that things like your minutes, stats, and role don’t matter if you aren’t winning. It’s a mindset that helped him be such a useful role player for the Los Angeles Lakers last season. Howard didn’t bother about his offensive usage, numbers, or coming off the bench as he has done in the past. He focused on protecting the paint, providing energetic defense, rebounding, and rolling and finishing inside (he had a career-high True Shooting Percentage of 69.6 and made 79.8 percent of his shots at the rim). And it paid off.
Now, Howard wants to share his experience in Philly and help however he can, as a player and mentor.
“Playing alongside Jo and Ben, I think for me it’s just giving them a sense that they can do anything,” Howard added on December 3 when discussing how he can help his younger teammates. “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.”
Howard has been embracing his leadership role as he gets started with the Sixers, and he’s been impressing other members of the team at training camp.
When Simmons was asked at Monday’s practice whether anyone in particular has stood out to him at training camp, he expressed his confidence in all his teammates, but specifically pointed out Dwight Howard, too.
“Everybody. I really believe in my teammates. I think everybody has come in with the right mindset... I think overall everybody has been really playing well and playing hard. I think, for me, one person that sticks out is Dwight, and that’s more so just him being vocal and being a leader. You know, he’s a vet and has been in this league for a while, and he’s had different experiences. He’s gonna be huge for us. Somebody you can lean on and learn from.”
Justin Anderson has returned to the Sixers after two years away from the team. He’s also highlighted Howard as someone who’s stood out from a leadership standpoint, and he’s noticed a change in Simmons and Embiid, too.
“Here I am going into year six and it has been a grind to get here, but with the leadership of Ben and Joel, those guys have kind of come in, talking to the younger guys and using their voices so much more at practice, so far I haven’t really said anything,” Anderson said after Tuesday’s practice. “This is their team and those guys are being the vocal leaders that maybe they weren’t in the past.”
As Howard has said himself, one thing Doc Rivers wants from him is to set an example to younger players, and the Sixers’ new head coach has noticed it during training camp so far.
“Dwight is more of a lead by example guy with his leadership, especially from a player perspective,” Rivers explained after practice on Tuesday when asked about Howard’s leadership. “He’s out there doing it, you know. He’s holding himself accountable, which I think is something great for all our guys to see. Every time Dwight makes a mistake, he’s the first one, raises his hand, you know, ‘my fault, what do I need to do?’ He asks questions a lot, which a lot of veterans don’t, they feel like asking a question is a sign of weakness for whatever reason… He’s been fantastic.”
Rivers also mentioned how impressed he’s been by Howard’s continued transition from star to role player.
“The thing I’ve been so impressed with Dwight, it’s rare that a guy can go from the guy, superstar, in the MVP category every year to being a role player, wanting to help everyone else, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Ideally, the Sixers would also have a shooting center on their bench to serve as a floor spacing option next to Simmons. But to provide some rim protection, strong rebounding, a dose of rim rolling ability and overall energy off the bench, Howard should be an effective backup center for the Sixers. If he can fill his seemingly growing role as a leader as well, he can make a positive impact in a few areas in Philly.