As Howard’s tenure takes shape, confidence remains strong

Friday, June 7, 2019 - 6:02pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Amid the excitement of Juwan Howard’s introductory press conference, there was an undeniable uncertainty ringing though Crisler Center. Neither Howard nor his players could speak to his on-court strategy and when asked about recruiting, Howard’s response was: “I haven’t just pinpointed exactly like, I’m going after the five-star, one-and-dones or I’m going to recruit three-star kids.”

That uncertainty has persisted. Howard made his first 2020 offer to five-star guard Joshua Christopher, seemingly signaling a change from John Beilein’s methodical recruiting. But then, barely 24 hours later, his second offer came — to Jabri Abdur-Rahim, a four-star forward also offered by Beilein.

The point is, no one knows exactly what Howard will bring to Michigan, on or off the court.

And yet, within the program, the refrain is that none of that matters — at least not yet. Outside the program, those who have interacted with Howard maintain the same stance.

“Number one, I know he’s well respected in the NBA, and has really grinded it in coaching the last few years,” one high-major head coach told The Daily. ”I actually watched his press conference, cause above all, I’m just a fan of college basketball. I thought the emotion and passion he had at his press conference spoke for itself. So I’m a huge fan and I’m really pulling for him. I think it’s a great hire.”

Among the calming assurances regarding Howard’s inexperience is his reputation in the NBA, where he followed a 20-year playing career with six years as an assistant coach for the Miami Heat. Over the past two offseasons, Howard’s reputation landed him six head-coaching interviews.

But why then, if Howard is so respected and if his future success is treated as a certainty, have none of those six teams extended a head-coaching offer?

For at least one team — the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Howard interviewed last month — the answer is clear: they found their man. His name is John Beilein. The similarities between the two, though, are more than meets the surface.

“You talk to Juwan and you talk to (Beilein), obviously they’re different people, but I think they have very similar values,” Mike Gansey, the Cavaliers’ assistant general manager, told The Daily. “They’re not overly — they don’t scream and yell, they’re not super aggressive. They’re more laid back, positive kind of guys.”

Then, he paused, perhaps providing some insight into why Cleveland ultimately settled on Beilein.

“Obviously, coach Beilein is an excellent Xs and Os guy. And Juwan, we don’t know yet.”

That difference will eventually be critical. And at some point, Howard will have to figure out those Xs and Os. But for the six NBA teams who interviewed him, the signs pointed to that happening.

For Gansey and the Cavaliers, the biggest was six years’ experience working under Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley. That, along with endorsements from those who had worked with Howard, landed him an interview with Cleveland. From there, his personality took over.

“When you sit with him for six, seven hours, you know he’s a really good person, you can just feel it,” Gansey said “You hear it from everyone else and you see it, but until you really sit down and talk to him, then you really feel it — he’s all that. There’s not a bad bone in his body and he’s positive, he works.

“It’s just the Xs and Os and just getting used to being a head coach that I think will take a little bit of time. But he’ll figure it out.”

As for the never-been-a-head-coach stigma, Gansey is careful to note that Howard has coached in the summer league, giving him live-game head-coaching experience that he didn’t have as an assistant. Recruiting, though, is something Howard didn’t have to deal with in the NBA, and it showed in his uncertainty at last week’s press conference.

The common rebuttal has been the well-circulated story of Howard recruiting the rest of the Fab Five as the group’s first commit, which ignores that strategic aspect of constructing a recruiting class — a hurdle that Howard has already encountered. Andy Borman, a well-known AAU coach whose players have been recruited by former NBA stars-turned-coaches such as Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, emphasized the importance of Howard hiring experienced assistants to smoothen that transition.

Less than a week after Borman spoke with The Daily, Howard hired Phil Martelli, the longtime Saint Joseph’s coach and definition of a home run hire if your top criteria is experience.

And then there’s the name.

“I think it’s the name Juwan Howard, I think it’s the name Fab Five, I think it’s also the name Michigan,” Borman said. “He’s a big name, talking about a school that checks so many boxes.”

Howard, though, left Michigan in 1994. His best NBA season was 1996. Cristopher was born in 2001, Abdur-Rahim in 2002.

So the natural question follows, does Juwan Howard’s name matter to recruits?

Borman scoffs, pauses and answers.

“It’s not like they’re recruiting in the 80s. Right now, with social media, with the internet, with YouTube. I turned on the TV (after the hire) and everything I see about Juwan Howard is him when he was a college player and when he was a pro. So even though his days as a player predate these kids, it’s not like they don’t have access to it.

“… He obviously has a pro background and I think that is so relevant to kids nowadays. Because what do they aspire to be? They aspire to be pros.”

The questions — whether they’re about recruiting or Xs and Os — are constant. And as Howard’s answers begin to take shape, so is the confidence in him.

Additional reporting by Ethan Sears