|Dwight Howard: a Magic show that just keeps getting better|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 14 April 2008 10:45|
A bystander posed a question. Who would win this one-on-one matchup?
The Hall of Fame former Knick, in his prime, or Howard, the 22-year-old who today leads the league in rebounds and double-doubles?
``I ain't in my prime yet,'' Howard answered, swiftly ending the argument.
For the rest of the NBA, that's downright scary.
Not through his fourth full season, Howard is on pace to become the NBA's youngest rebound king, and could become the fifth player to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and shoot 60 percent. In November he became the youngest player - by more than a year - to reach 3,000 rebounds. He has an NBA-best eight games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds.
With those numbers it's easy to forget how much Howard has grown. It wasn't long ago Orlando gambled with the No. 1 overall draft pick on the 18-year-old with braces out of a small Christian high school in Atlanta. He's still the youngest player on the Magic, and still the biggest cutup.
When Howard's lip swelled after he busted it in practice, he joked about hitting it on the rim. He started calling himself ``Shanaynay,'' a big-mouthed female character Martin Lawrence played in the '90s.
``How you doiiiin?'' he mugged, with puffed lips and perfect pitch.
Howard has plenty to smile about. His 21 points and 14 rebounds a game helped the Magic clinch their first division title since the Shaquille O'Neal era in 1995-96, and his Superman schtick and outrageous athleticism highlighted a breakout All-Star weekend.
His sculpted 6-foot-11, 265-pound frame appears on buses and billboards around town, and he recently filmed a commercial for the Vitamin Water drink line. Amway Arena now plays the Superman theme to punctuate his big plays - homage to the jersey and cape Howard wore to win the slam-dunk contest.
He has, by all measures, passed the cusp of superstardom. Still, the word everyone uses about Howard is ``potential.''
``He has a long way to go,'' Orlando general manager Otis Smith said. ``I think that's the beauty of him, and some of the things that he's doing that are even amazing him. His growth chart for what he's going to do, we haven't seen the tip of the iceberg yet.''
Growing up in the NBA has not always been comfortable. For the first time Howard got called out by Magic coach Stan Van Gundy for playing without energy and concentrating too much on offense. Months earlier, news trickled out that Howard, a devout Christian, fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a former Magic dancer.
Howard responded to his coach's nudge with a 20-point, 20-rebound game. He calls his son ``the best thing in my life.''
``I keep basketball and fatherhood separate,'' Howard said. ``But leadership is big for our team and I'm one of the leaders.''
He also realizes he's being asked to lead and learn at the same time. It is a work in progress, but Howard's numbers already merit MVP consideration.
``I think I've grown since last year,'' he said. ``But I feel like I've got a long way to go.''
As outgoing as he is, Howard always seemed uncomfortable talking about himself. His voice and laugh - thunderous through the locker room as his dunks are on the court - drop an octave into a whisper if he's asked about his accomplishments. Howard dispatches most questions about his game with old saws about playing hard and chasing a championship.
``It's not all about my status, you know?'' Howard said. ``If we win and I lead my team the right way, then that's better than any personal stat.''
``He's very humble,'' said guard Jameer Nelson, a close friend. ``He comes from a great family. He has two great parents that are definitely involved in his life.''
The Magic visit Howard's folks for dinner each time they play in Atlanta, as they do Nelson's in Philadelphia.
Howard's offensive game is still evolving, and he now shoots a reliable baby hook with either hand. He has a drop-step and short turnaround jumper, but he looks best throwing it right through the rim.
Howard is adjusting to double-teams and the physical, hands-on play of post players. His greatest weakness is foul shooting (59 percent), so he's constantly pushed on inside dumps. When Howard returns in kind, he often picks up cheap fouls.
Howard credits Ewing with helping keep his mind in the game when he gets into early foul trouble. Last week against Chicago, he had 30 points and 14 rebounds despite playing only four minutes in the first quarter after his second foul.
``At times he could take it to another level of intensity and focus, and that's something that we'll hopefully get him to do as time goes on,'' Van Gundy said. ``Hopefully, quickly here in the playoffs, because the game will get tough for him.''
The key to Howard's success is his rare combination of size, speed, power and athleticism. He's the team's second-heaviest player (behind 270-pound Adonal Foyle), but he has the fourth-lowest body fat percentage. Magic trainers estimate Howard burns between 2,000 and 3,000 calories each game.
His work ethic is strong and he doesn't drink alcohol. He's also played every Magic game since he started in 2004.
``He's just genetically superior to most people from a physical standpoint, most other athletes,'' Orlando strength and conditioning coach Joe Rogowski said.
Howard seems to be enjoying every second of it. At a recent visit to reward elementary school students for improving test scores, he peeked around a curtain, clowning as the principal talked. He led a dance, wore a cardboard hat and handed out shoes from Adidas, with whom he has his biggest endorsement contract.
``So far,'' he told the kids, ``our hard work has paid off because we're the third-best team in the East and the Southeast Division champions.''
Of course, there was a punch line.
``It's something the Magic hadn't done since I think you were there, right?'' he said to Nick Anderson, the first player the team drafted before its 1989-99 season. ``I think I was in diapers.''