Rodney Howard eager to show offseason improvement

Georgia Tech center Rodney Howard (24) looks for a open teammate in the first half of the Holiday Hoopsgiving tournament Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/ For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Georgia Tech center Rodney Howard (24) looks for a open teammate in the first half of the Holiday Hoopsgiving tournament Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/ For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Rodney Howard toiled mainly in the shadows a year ago. A genial sort, it didn’t seem to bother him. The Georgia Tech center was a key element in the Yellow Jackets’ plans, but one whose place was behind leading scorers Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher.

At the start of his second season as a starter, though, Howard has moved much closer to the center of the stage as the Jackets seek to outperform the dimmest of expectations. Howard is eager to let the season take shape.

“I don’t have to worry about too much,” Howard said of being a returning starter. “I know how this year’s going to go in terms of playing style. I’ve been playing with these guys the whole summer. It’s been fun. I can’t wait for the season to get started.”

The wait ends Monday night, as the Jackets open the 2022-23 season against Division II Clayton State at McCamish Pavilion. As not only a returning starter but the only post player with significant experience as a Jacket, Howard figures to play a pivotal role in any success the team achieves.

“There’s no doubt he’s gotten better,” coach Josh Pastner said.

In his first season as a starter, Howard made gains as the season went on last year, averaging 10.2 points and 6.3 rebounds over the final nine games of the season. For the year, he averaged 6.5 points and 5.1 rebounds with 40 assists, 40 turnovers and 20 blocks in 27 games. He played 24.7 minutes per game.

Over the summer, Pastner said that, in order for the Jackets to be competitive this season, Howard will need to play well enough to be in contention for most improved player in the ACC.

Tech needs gains out of Howard in a number of areas. His offensive game is a place to start. In the Jackets’ Princeton-style offense, Howard is the hub of the scheme, but at times had trouble with the ballhandling. He worked over the summer with assistant coach Anthony Wilkins, who has previously developed the games of Jose Alvarado, Moses Wright, Usher and Devoe, among others.

Decision making, passing, shooting ball handling were three focuses.

“Just being able to know where my guys are going to be,” Howard said. “If somebody’s helping out, just dishing it over to the corner. I just feel like everything slowed down. I don’t feel like I’m being rushed to make a decision.”

Where Howard’s scoring was primarily limited to dunks or shots close to the basket – hence his team-leading 56.1% field-goal percentage – Howard said he now feels comfortable shooting from the high post. It perhaps goes without saying, but the more that Howard can be a factor in the offense, the more he’ll draw attention, which in turn will open up the floor for perimeter shooters and the backdoor layups that the scheme is designed to create.

“It’s been pretty fun working with coach Wilkins,” Howard said.

Rebounding was another priority, not just for Howard but for the entire team. Howard’s defensive rebounding rate last season – 3.7 rebounds per 30 minutes – was well behind Usher (5.0) and nearly the same as Devoe (3.6). In his ACC player of the year season, Wright was at 4.1 in 2020-21. The year before that, Wright was at 5.1 and James Banks was at 4.9.

Georgia Tech center Rodney Howard speaks with media at McCamish Pavilion Nov. 1, 2022. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Credit: Ken Sugiura

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Credit: Ken Sugiura

Howard has heard Pastner’s rebounding directive and experienced it in a change in the way practice is conducted. At practice, players are graded on a variety of actions, such as charges taken and 50/50 balls won. Howard said that Pastner, beyond actual rebounds, has added categories such as the number of times players get a tip on an offensive rebound to keep a possession alive or properly position themselves for a rebound on defense.

“He wants everybody to rebound,” Howard said.

Pastner accepts that Howard isn’t a shot blocker like predecessors Ben Lammers, Banks and Wright.

“What he can do is he can really move his feet defensively,” Pastner said. “Like, he can move. He can cover ground. So we’ve got to use that to our advantage.”

Strength and conditioning is a third area. If he’s effective, it won’t be a surprise if Pastner keeps Howard on the floor for 30 minutes a game up from 24.7 last year. Howard has prepared for the possibility.

Howard is listed at 6-foot-11 and 256 pounds, which is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than last season. Howard said he put on 15 pounds after last season as his body-fat percentage increased by one percentage point to 10.9%. At a recent check, he said, it had dropped to 8.3%.

“That’s pretty good,” Howard said. “That’s probably the best I’ve looked since being in college basketball.”

In timed mile runs over the summer, Howard said he ran his in the 5:50 range.

“Some of the guys had amazing times, like 5:20 or something like that,” Howard said. “They should have been on cross country or something.”

Pastner has another objective for Howard.

“I think the key for Rodney is consistency, from start to finish,” he said.

The gains haven’t been Howard’s alone. Howard touted his teammates’ improved accuracy from 3-point range, which should be provided from returning guards Deebo Coleman, Miles Kelly and Kyle Sturdivant and transfer guard Lance Terry.

“I’m not really sure what we shot last year, but now we’ve got more people just coming in and just shooting the mess out of the ball,” Howard said.

Hopeful preseason talk is as old as preseason itself, but Pastner has a growing record of developing players.

The external hopes for the Jackets are the least optimistic that they’ve been in Pastner’s tenure, now going into its seventh season. The Jackets were picked last in the ACC. KenPom’s projection is no better – 117th in Division I, last in the ACC and ahead of only two power-conference teams.

“I wasn’t too surprised,” Howard said of being picked last. “Nobody knows our team – they haven’t come in and watched all these guys develop around us.”

Starting Monday, everyone will get a chance.