MIAMI — The photo looks like a lifetime ago.
Because, in NBA terms, it is.
It was taken in the summer of 2004, when we at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel—my employer at the time—had identified Dwyane Wade as one of our area's top dozen professional athletes aged 25 or under. His inclusion wasn't exactly a controversial call, not after he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, flashed superstar poise in a first-round elimination of New Orleans and slammed over Indiana center Jermaine O'Neal in the second round.
So Wade drove to Sun Life Stadium for one of our mixed-sports shoots, this one with reigning World Series MVP Josh Beckett, hours prior to a Florida Marlins game. But Beckett overslept, so the Miami Heat guard shot it himself in the empty stadium.
"Yeah, I remember that," Wade said this week with a smile.
Nearly a decade later, what would Wade tell the kid in the stands?
"I'd tell him to expect the unexpected," Wade said. "That would be the biggest thing. You come in at that age, you’re just green. You don’t know what’s ahead of you. I’d just tell him to expect the unexpected. In everything."
Wade has also been providing the unexpected to the public, nearly as often and for equally as long. Just about every time it appears that he's fading, he flourishes.
The past couple of weeks have hardly been perfect for his team—dropping four of their past five games—and he made some mistakes down the stretch of Wednesday's 96-95 loss to the Nets. But, on the whole, all seems well in Wade's world. He's played in each of the past five games, including both ends of a back-to-back for just the third time all season. He's averaged 21.8 points on 51.4 percentage shooting in those contests. That second number, while solid, has actually lowered his season percentage to 55.1, by far the best among NBA guards.
But what sticks out, more than the statistics, is the style in which he's succeeding of late, showing off spin moves and sweeping hooks, flashing the Eurostep and the over-the-head dribble, improvising without hesitating. Simply, he's looked like an even craftier version of his old self—sneaky, rather than creaky.
Much of this, of course, is due to the more stable state of his knees, after a season-long commitment to strength and conditioning—not just with Heat trainers but also with Chicago-based Tim Grover, who has spent the past four homestands, including the current one, working with Wade in South Florida.
But it was also part of a plan that goes back to before he took the aforementioned photo.
Wade always intended to evolve.
"You know what’s funny, is when I was coming in doing (draft) workouts, I remember after we worked out, we'd have to go meet with the front-office people, and they'd ask you questions," Wade said. "And I always talked about how I knew when I came into the NBA that my game wasn’t a finished product. I knew I still had a lot to learn, I knew I still wanted to add stuff to my game, and I could continue to add stuff. And it doesn’t change now."
Actually, that's about all that hasn't.
His teammates, circumstances and role certainly have—especially since LeBron James and Chris Bosh arrived to take a share of the spotlight and the shot chart.
"This team has made me have to change as well," Wade said. "Knowing that for me to be effective, and for me to get the most out of my ability, and to be able to be happy with my play, I have to make some adjustments. That’s why I made the adjustment of being more of a cutter and being more of a post player. That’s why I have taken less threes than I have taken in the past, and don’t focus on that as much, just because of the team."
He averaged 260.5 attempts from behind the arc in the two seasons prior to James and Bosh coming aboard, and even 206 in their first season as a trio. He has taken a total of 149 the past three seasons, including just 27 this season. Instead, he's added back old elements (the bank shot) and some new (the aforementioned sweeping hook).
His schedule—filled with promotional appearances and rehabilitation assignments—wouldn't seem conducive to such work. Still, he carved out enough time this summer.
"I worked a lot in the post," Wade said. "I worked a lot on my midrange. And then when I get to the season, I just try to get back to those things when I do certain workouts."
He does those on-court workouts before practices, as he did Saturday in Chicago, and before games, as he did Monday in Miami.
"And I’m the kind of player, that once I do something, do something, all I got to do is now go back and it’s repetition," Wade said. "I put in the foundation this summer, and then the season comes, I can go back to it."
He snapped his fingers.
"I can go back to it," Wade repeated.
Without thinking. That's the goal. That's the key.
Wade isn't the type to analyze analytics or stress over scouting reports—like, say, Shane Battier.
He cares about just one individual number.
"My field-goal percentage," Wade said. "I always have. My whole career, I always have. I take pride in that. I look down the line, I see people at this point that maybe average more than me, but they are averaging 42, 41 percent. You know, I could do that. But I try to take good shots, and high-percentage shots."
He gets more of those when his body and mind are free.
When he's right, he's both an attacker and a reactor.
"I just like to be pure instinctive, as much as possible," Wade said. "That's where I have always been my best. When I was young, that was my thing that got me over the hump, was how great I was instinctively. Obviously, as I got older, I’m not as instinctive, because I’ve had to adjust my game to my body on certain nights. When you’re not feeling well, you’re not instinctive. Because you’re not feeling well, you have to go to certain things that you are comfortable with. But the nights that I can be, I love it. That's where I'm at my best. I’ve always been able to just do and react. That’s what I’ve been able to do of late."
He's done a lot of it from down low.
"I feel that I’m pretty good down there," Wade said. "Some nights I don’t have to give you much. I just go with my hook shot. Some nights I open it up, and I’m able to do other things in the post. I feel that I can get a shot at any time, but I also feel I can pass out of there. That’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of, that I’ve added, that I didn’t have in college."
He also didn't have some of his current scars, even if one of his knee surgeries—meniscus removal in his left knee—occurred during that time, and came to regret it.
What he doesn't regret?
The reckless way he used to play, when he was athletically able to assault the rim on every possession.
At All-Star weekend, former teammate Gary Payton spoke to Bleacher Report about warning Wade, way back in 2006, that he should stop falling so much, that eventually his body wouldn't bear it.
Wade didn't buy it then.
Nor does he now.
"No," he said, laughing. "I'm here because of that. I’m three championships in because of that. I’m three championships in because of that. My future looks bright because of that. I always say that, the things that people like to say, my knee injuries, it’s just things that I’ve dealt with. It didn’t come from falling. I didn’t hurt my knees from falling. Not at all. Do I fall less now? I try to. Because you know, that ground hurts. When you were younger, you could bounce back up. But no. It made me the player that I am."
That player looks different, in smile and style, than he did five years ago, let alone a decade ago.
And yet, he's still finding ways to get good looks on the court.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.