Josh Howard says he’s just happy to be playing basketball again, even if that means suiting up for the Austin Toros in the NBA’s Development League.
Players like Howard don’t normally spend time in pro basketball’s version of the minor leagues. A 10-year NBA veteran who’s played in more than 500 games, he’s only the second former NBA All-Star to dress out in the D-League. He and his new teammates will play their home opener Sunday, when Austin faces Delaware at Cedar Park Center.
“I wanted to get out there and show people I didn’t just disappear off the face of the map,” said Howard, 33, who averaged 12 points and 2.5 rebounds as the Toros dropped two games at Santa Cruz to open the season. “I want to be able to show everyone I can still play this game at a high level.”
Within the community of NBA coaches and general managers, Howard’s ability to play the game at the highest level appears to be in question. After seven years with the Dallas Mavericks — for whom he started almost every game at small forward — Howard bounced around the NBA for three seasons.
During injury-riddled stints with the Washington Wizards, Utah Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves, his scoring output dipped below double-digits for the first time since his rookie season of 2003-04. While with the Timberwolves, Howard tore the ACL in his right knee on Dec. 14, 2012, in a game against New Orleans. The mishap came a little less than two years after Howard tore the ACL in his left knee while a starter for the Wizards.
He could have retired this fall after failing to find an NBA home, but after being waived by the San Antonio Spurs in the preseason, Howard signed a contract with the Toros — for $25,000, he said — four years after he was making $10 million a season.
“You have to shake the stigma that everyone thinks you can’t play like you used to (after a knee injury),” Howard said. “Yes, I can’t bounce back right away like a 26- or 27-year-old, but the confidence has always been there, and I still know the game like the back of my hand.”
While Howard hopes to earn a promotion to an NBA team, he’s enjoying his time with the Toros.
“I’m still having a ball out there,” Howard said. “I’m going out there and having just as much fun as I did when I was 14 and 15 playing AAU … I’m ready to finish this season with the Austin Toros if I need to. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt so I’m going to enjoy this ride and enjoy this team.”
Howard also has teamed with fellow NBA veteran Ronald “Flip” Murray to help the Toros’ first-year head coach, Ken McDonald, mentor some of the team’s younger players.
“He’s almost like an extra coach on the floor,” McDonald said. “He’s got a lot of energy — more than you’d expect from an NBA veteran in the D-League — but he does his part to talk to younger guys about what works and what doesn’t at the next level.”
Even as he helps his younger teammates develop, Howard can expect to play “good minutes” this season, McDonald said.
“It’s the development league, and Josh is just in a different stage of development,” McDonald said. “While other guys are growing, he’s still rehabbing his game. He doesn’t come out and expect minutes, but he’s going to help our team, and we can only have five guys on the floor.”
In the Toros’ season opener Nov. 22, Howard scored 16 points in 31 minutes against Santa Cruz, topping 30 minutes of playing time for only the second time in the past two years. In his second D-League game, two nights later, he scored eight points despite playing just 18 minutes because of foul trouble.
Toros vs. Delaware
3 p.m. Sunday, Cedar Park Center