ORLANDO - The shot clock was winding down and Dwight Howard was left with no choice. Even though he was out of his comfort zone some 15 feet from the basket, the Orlando Magic center heaved up the shot.
The ball hit the side of the rim, off the backboard, again off the front of the rim and then into the net. As he ran back down the court, Howard couldn't help but chuckle at one of the few successful jump shots in his three-year NBA career.
Howard might be coming off a career-best game -- he scored 32 points on 13 of 14 shooting in Wednesday's loss to the Toronto Raptors -- but the next step in the evolution of Howard's offensive game is the jump shot.
And for an expert on the subject, Howard won't have to look any further than the guy he's guarding tonight when the Magic (25-25) host the San Antonio Spurs (33-16). San Antonio center Tim Duncan has become somewhat of a master of the mid-range jump shot, making opponents pay when they back off with the bank jump shot off the glass.
"That's the next thing we add to his game and I think it will be something he'll be able to do," Magic coach Brian Hill said of Howard's improving jump shot. "He can do it in practice, but I'm not sure he's to the point where he's comfortable shooting it in games yet. But because he faces up a lot, it's perfect for when defenders back off of him."
The slumping Magic need every ounce of extra energy that they can get right now considering the six-week funk that has griped the team. Once 13-4 and atop the Eastern Conference, the Magic have since gone 12-21 to fall to seventh. They have been even worse of late, winning just three times in the past 14 games and losing Tuesday in Milwaukee and Wednesday in Toronto.
"We're in a fight right now with ourselves," Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said. "We've got to focus more on what we need to do as a team instead of what the other team is doing. We need to be trying to win a game instead of just playing. We can do that if we'll come out and play hard and be aggressive."
Howard, the Magic's 21-year-old all-star center, has been ultra-aggressive of late, trying to slingshot the Magic out of their losing ways. He's made 21 of 23 shots (91.3 percent) in the past two games and a staggering 38 of 47 (80.9 percent) over the last five. Most of those baskets have been on thunderous dunks, giving him 143 stuffs for the season -- 29 more than his next closest competitor (Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire).
"The Big Fella has been dominating down there," Nelson said. "Now the rest of us need to join him."
But getting free for dunks will be tougher against San Antonio's big frontline and physical defense. The Spurs will likely throw 7-footers Francisco Elson, Fabricio Oberto and Duncan at Howard in waves, hoping to make life difficult for him on the low block.
That's where a mid-range jump shot might help Howard expand his offensive game. On the low block, teams can limit his shot attempts and force him into turnovers by sending double teams his way. Howard has been held to single-digit shot attempts 19 times this season, something that seems unfathomable since he's the focal point of Hill's "inside-out" offense.
Howard spent time after Thursday's light practice working on his jump shot with assistant coach Morlon Wiley. Such a shot would give Howard another option to score when foes back off and dare him to drive -- something that has frequently resulted in turnovers and offensive fouls this season.
Needless to say, Howard is still a work in progress.
"I'm in the learning process and really this should be my third year in college," Howard said recently. "I'm still working on my game. Three years from now I'll be a totally different player than I am now.
"I want to become a great player, one of the greatest to ever play the game. Everything I do now is geared toward me becoming a great player down the road."
Magic general manager Otis Smith said the addition of a jump shot will only make Howard a better player in the long run.
"We're beginning to see glimpses of how good he truly can become," the Magic GM said. "Once he gets where he can make just 40 percent of those face-up jumpers, he's going to be even harder to guard. And once he really understands the game, watch out, because he's going to be scary."
It looks like he really does wanna get better, his improvement has been a bit slow IMO. But i think the team also has something to do with it. I mean we just cant give him the ball consistently, i know i've said this a millions times but FEED DWIGHT!
I like Dwights attitude in wanting to become a more better player, he has so much potential to become such a great player its really fantastic to see he's working very hard on his game.
Coach Hill was saying he wants him to become a better player too? But it looks like Brian Hill has done nothing to get Dwight more in the game offensively.