ATLANTA — Dwight Howard beamed Monday as he posed for photos, finally wearing his hometown “ATLANTA” in big letters across his broad chest.
Howard said his homecoming is “a blessing and an honor” which wipes away frustrations of up-and-down seasons with the Lakers and Rockets the last four years.
“I was placed in situations that weren’t really the right situations for me,” Howard said. “But all that stuff, the only thing it did was mold me for the opportunity that I have now. All the good stuff and bad stuff, all the hardships I had to endure, all that stuff it really just made me a better person.”
Howard came out of Southwest Atlanta Christian School to become the No. 1 overall pick by Orlando in 2004. He spent eight seasons with the Magic and one with the Lakers before playing for the Rockets the last three years.
Howard signed a three-year, $70.5 million deal with Atlanta in July — but this is not his first Hawks jersey. He said he regularly wore Hawks gear while growing up in Atlanta’s suburbs.
“I had all the Hawks jerseys and I wore them like I was on the team, and now to actually be on the team is just a dream come true,” Howard said.
Howard, 30, is the biggest part of a new look for the Hawks, who open training camp on Tuesday.
Atlanta’s remake also includes starting point guard Dennis Schroder, the former backup to Jeff Teague, who was traded to Indiana. Howard replaces Al Horford, who signed with Boston.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said Howard gives Atlanta the rebounding force it lacked even while making nine straight playoff appearances. The Hawks usually were undersized with Horford misplaced at center, but that won’t be a problem with Howard, who has averaged 12.7 rebounds in his career and was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in three straight seasons (2009-11).
The Hawks ranked only 24th in the NBA in rebounds last season.
“We’re strong in some other areas and that’s the area we look and see the most obvious room for improvement and obviously the area where Dwight can have a great, positive impact,” Budenholzer said.
Budenholzer said he’s confident Howard also can be a good fit in his offense, including “our core principals of playing unselfishly and with ball movement.”
Budenholzer sees Howard’s defensive rebounds starting fast-break opportunities led by Schroder’s quickness, and he sees Howard as a perfect fit in his pick-and-roll plays.
Howard will start beside power forward Paul Millsap, who will miss at least two preseason games following a procedure to reduce swelling in his right knee. Budenholzer said Monday he’s confident Millsap will be ready for the season.
Millsap said Howard has made a good first impression.
“He’s been great,” Millsap said. “He’s been in the gym every day working hard. It’s good to see his positive attitude in the locker room. He has definitely been a vocal leader for us since he’s been here. We like it. We like his energy. We like what he brings to the table.”
Howard calls Millsap “Patent Leather.”
“Because he’s so smooth,” Howard said. “Everything he does is smooth and efficient.”
Millsap said he’ll accept the nickname because “he’s probably not going to stop calling me that.”
Budenholzer said he likes the mix of 11 returning players with a few newcomers, including rookie forwards Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry and veteran guards Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum.
“We have significant continuity coming back while also making significant changes to our roster,” Budenholzer said. “I think that’s a pretty rare and unique situation in our league.”