Since taking some time to re-evaluate his season during the All-Star Break, Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard has looked like a different player. Believe it or not, he's crediting the influence of Kobe Bryant for the changes he's made to date, as well as the ones he hopes to make in the future.
According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, Howard admitted to himself that Bryant was the kind of influence he needed to spur his own growth on and off the court. "It's going to make me a better man and a better player," said Howard "from watching Kobe."
In what's been a year filled with professional disappointments and regrettable personal missteps, Howard probably could use a role model.
A back injury has kept him from looking like the player that athletically dominated the paint for eight years with the Orlando Magic. Away from the hardwood, Howard has made what seems like at least one egregiously thoughtless misstep with the media per week, the latest gaffe being an assertion that his former Orlando teammates were unwanted cast-offs.
It's notable that that most recent media mistake occurred after the All-Star Break that Howard claims marked the turning point in his season. So clearly, he's still a work in progress.
But the results on the court are hard to ignore.
Since Howard's professed epiphany, the big man has shown notably improved mobility and quickness. The physical changes manifest themselves in couple of key statistics, too; most notably Howard's rebounds, steals and blocks have all enjoyed slight upticks since the mid-February break.
The improvement in Howard's defensive activity has paid dividends in the win column, as well, with coach Mike D'Antoni crediting him for some excellent defense down the stretch in L.A.'s comeback victory over the New Orleans Hornets on March 6:
On March 8 against the Toronto Raptors, Howard's physical skills again looked like they'd undergone a discernible improvement. Shelburne quoted D'Antoni as saying, "He jumped three or four times after one ball...His conditioning didn't allow him to do that [before]."
But where does Bryant figure into all of this? Howard said that watching his teammate has been a factor in his decision to improve himself, yet it's hard to credit Bryant for the natural healing taking place in Howard's surgically repaired back.
And based on the way D12 keeps finding microphones to talk into, he certainly hasn't changed his "hey world, look at me" approach to public relations.
The fact is that Howard really likes to talk, often doesn't think before doing so and occasionally stumbles onto the phrases that people actually want to hear. His batting average isn't very good in that last area, but he takes enough swings to occasionally connect.
In this case, it seems wise for Howard to have shown deference to Bryant and it's certainly a plus that his physical health has improved at the same time. It feels like a quantum leap for him to convey his professed admiration for Bryant with his recently improved play.
Anyone who actually believes Howard is being genuine (count this author out of that group), might want to at least advise him to be careful which of Bryant's personal traits he chooses to adopt in his quest to become a better man.
A strong work ethic and a supreme competitive spirit would be great, but it would probably be best not to emulate Bryant's impatience and prickly demeanor.
In the end, we can either take Howard's latest statements at face value, or we can factor in his history of saying one thing and doing another. Realistically, he'll probably continue to put his foot in his mouth a few times a month and earn criticism for clownish behavior.
All the Lakers care about, though, is the fact that his play on the court has improved lately. If that's because Howard's got a new role model, so be it.