As season nears end, Rodney Howard may be finding his form

Credit: Anthony McClellan

Credit: Anthony McClellan

In the final quarter of the season, two of Georgia Tech’s season-long quests may have been achieved. Coach Josh Pastner’s desire for production out of the post and a consistent third scorer may have been met in the form of center Rodney Howard.

Howard began the season as a starter and produced against mid-major competition before coming up short against stronger nonconference opponents. He then missed five games with an ankle injury and was less effective upon his return. But, in Tech’s most recent three games, including Tech’s 68-62 road win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, he has executed his supporting role for the Yellow Jackets to Pastner’s satisfaction.

“He was out for a while, and that really hurt our team, not having him, and then it took him just a little bit to get back in the flow of things,” Pastner said after the game. “And since he’s been back for us, he’s been really, really good.”

Against Pitt, Howard matched his career scoring high (set in Tech’s previous game, a home loss to N.C. State) of 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He was also active on defense, challenging shots and setting hard hedges on screens before scrambling back to cover the post. He was a physical presence against Pitt big man John Hugley. With the win, Tech ended a three-game losing streak and improved its record to 11-15 overall and 4-11 in the ACC.

Howard also had seven rebounds (four on the offensive end) and turned the ball over just once in 33 minutes despite a significant role in handling the ball in Tech’s Princeton offense.

Georgia Tech 68, Pittsburgh 62

With Howard scoring 10 points against Virginia, 14 against N.C. State and 14 against the Panthers, he became the first Tech player this season other than the team’s two leading scorers – guard Michael Devoe and forward Jordan Usher – to score in double figures in three consecutive games. Moreover, Howard has been a highly efficient scorer, making 18 of 24 field-goal tries in the three games.

It has been Pastner’s season-long hope for his offense-challenged team that a consistent third scorer could emerge. Three games do not constitute much of a sample, but he’s at least looked the part and undoubtedly will get a chance to continue.

Howard has been sticking to what he can do. He has scored mostly on putbacks and close-range shots going to the basket, such as dunks off feeds from teammates after they draw in the defense. His ability to score more skillfully is, to be sure, a work in progress.

Still, Pastner said that “it totally changes the dynamic of our team” when he is playing effectively as he has in the Jackets’ past three games.

“He was out for a while, and that really hurt our team, not having him, and then it took him just a little bit to get back in the flow of things. And since he's been back for us, he's been really, really good."

- Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner, on center Rodney Howard

“Look, he’s different than Moses Wright; he’s different than the guys we’ve had in the past,” Pastner said. “But he’s good in his role, of what he does when he plays the way he plays, with engagement.”

The remaining games (five in the regular season, including Tech’s game Monday at Syracuse, plus the ACC Tournament) will clarify whether Howard’s recent spurt in productivity is a new norm or merely a temporary spike. But it’s certainly an uptick. In his first seven games back from his ankle injury, Howard scored a total of 15 points with 21 rebounds in 101 minutes of play. He started six of the seven games, but played a total of 10 minutes against Clemson Feb. 5 and Miami Feb. 9 because he was contributing so little and was not playing as well as forward Jordan Meka. At Virginia Feb. 12, Pastner rewarded Meka with a start, but this time it was Howard who performed off the bench. He has started the two games since and played a total of 95 minutes in the three games, an indication of Pastner’s growing trust.

Howard credited work with assistant coach Eric Reveno.

“We start off with a lot of player development pre-practice, just Reveno helping me a lot – a lot of contact drills, finishing around the basket with contact, going against the other post players, as well,” Howard said. “It’s been a big help.”

There are certainly more steps in his game to take. He can be a more aggressive rebounder. He would be a more dangerous player if he developed a trustworthy jump hook or even a short jumper.

But he’s comfortable handling the ball and pulled off a few give-and-gos to create scoring chances against Pitt. He goes to the floor for loose balls. In perhaps his most athletic play of the game Saturday, he outjumped three other players for a defensive rebound in the second half and then, while falling to the floor, he passed to guard Deivon Smith to start a fast break that ended with Devoe scoring on a layup.

If he can keep it up through the end of the season, it would lend more hope for the prospects of the 2022-23 team, which will be without Devoe and Usher and will need to find consistent scoring. It would also offer additional testimony to Reveno’s gift for developing big men.

However, opponents figure to adjust for Howard and be more wary of his increasing scoring capacity. A new challenge unfolds for Tech and Howard.

“We really pride ourselves on player development,” Pastner said. “That’s really important for us, to get guys better, and Rodney’s another example of just getting guys better.”