Josh Howard sprints up the court at the New Orleans Pelicans practice facility.
He raises a hand to signal he’s open, catches a pass, then makes a move toward the basket before pulling up and making a jump shot.
At age 34 and after two ACL surgeries, Howard, a solid small forward during his 10-year NBA career, feels he still has something left. He is trying to impress that upon the Pelicans as a member of their summer league team, which will play in Las Vegas beginning Friday.
“I can’t be anything but excited about this opportunity,” Howard said. “This is my opportunity to further my career.”
Howard said he is determined to come back to the NBA but said he’ll be glad just to play basketball this season, whether in the NBA Development League or overseas. He last played a full season in the NBA in 2008-09. He played in the D-League last season with the Austin Toros, doing well enough to pique the Pelicans’ interest by averaging 14.7 points in 24 games, playing 29.5 minutes per game.
That the Pelicans’ top remaining need is at small forward adds to his motivation. It appears to be a long shot, certainly one in which health will be a huge factor. But during his NBA career, Howard was known as an all-around player.
“He’s got to be able to defend,” said Pelicans assistant coach Brian Gates, who is leading the summer league team. “We just want a solid defender, somebody that can rebound, get out and run the floor and make an open jump shot. And that’s what Josh has to do.”
The Dallas Mavericks drafted Howard 29th in the first round in 2003. On their way to the 2006 NBA Finals, the Mavs were 23-0 that season when Howard scored more than 20 points. The next season, he averaged 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds and was named to the Western Conference All-Star team.
He was invited to try out for a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team as a defensive specialist but turned it down.
His injuries began nine days after he was traded to the Washington Wizards in February, 2010, when he tore his left ACL. Less than two years later, while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, his right ACL tore, with a meniscus injury in between.
Getting healthy was a hard climb.
“It was a process — five days out of the week working out, conditioning,” he said. “And then once you get to the point where you can run and play longer than an hour, then the basketball part comes in.”
What followed was three-hour workouts of weights and basketball at a rehab facility in Las Vegas.
“Once I realized I can get through that and all I had to do was ice my knees and put my feet up, I knew I could make it again and keep playing,” he said.
This older Howard is a different one. Once a free spirit who said on ESPN Radio that he smoked marijuana during the offseason and didn’t think it stopped him from doing his job, Howard has taken on the role as a leader.
“Even if I don’t make it, to have the opportunity to help some of these guys out, to play the right way, you can’t lose with that,” he said.
Shooting guard Courtney Fells, who is on the Pelicans summer league team, said Howard gave him good advice last season when the two were Toros teammates.
“For me, (last) season was tough, because I would let things get to me,” Fells said. “But he said to me, ‘Control what you can control. As long as you do what you’re supposed to do every play out there, then everything else will take care of itself.’ ”
Howard was injured in late February and missed the rest of the season with a sports hernia. Fells received valuable advice from Howard regarding what many say is inevitable in sports.
“It’s unfortunate for him; he’s had some injuries,” Fells said. “But everybody has a route we have to go. The thing I learned from him with that is always stay positive, and having fun is the most important thing. And just do your job.”
If healthy, Howard would command only a minimum contract and could be a solid backup to a young, developing small forward such as Darius Miller, if the Pelicans decide Miller’s promise and inexpensive contract are the way to go and re-sign him.
But Howard first must show that he can play. He said, after the surgeries, he didn’t attack the rim like he did early in his career. He regained that last season in the D-League, he said.
“He’s different; he’s mature,” Gates said. “He might not be as quick as he used to be or lost that little athleticism a little bit. But he’s gained it in pace. ...
“The game has slowed down for him. We tape scrimmages, and we go back and watch it. Josh is in the right place all the time.”
And he hopes that place will end up being New Orleans.