Howard Storms The NBA, 20 Points and 20 Rebounds At A Time

By Jason Quick
Updated: December 1, 2006

PORTLAND – The next great player in the NBA joined his teammates at halfcourt Thursday at the University of Portland, all of them clapping in unison, the signal that an Orlando Magic practice was over.

Feeling the beat from the monotonous clapping, Magic center Dwight Howard started a dance at halfcourt, complete with swiveling hips, some arm gyrations and some snapping of the fingers. Before long, he burst into laughter with the rest of his teammates.

Howard is known as a jokester by teammates on the surprisingly upstart Magic (12-4). The real reason for laughter might be the way this 20-year-old has proved 2004 draft experts wrong, and the NBA probably has seen only a portion of what Howard will do in the coming weeks, months and years.

Casual observers will note Howard’s gaudy statistics — which include a league-leading 13.6 rebounding average (entering Friday’s game against the Blazers) and three games this season of at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. But those within the Magic who are around this third-year player every day know only the tip of his potential has been realized.

“I don’t know that it has clicked with him yet. He still has a ways to go; he is still figuring out this game,” Magic general manager Otis Smith said. “Right now, he is just going out and doing it without thinking about it.”

And if there isn’t a collective shuddering around the league at hearing that, the chills are sure to come once teams have to face the 6-foot-11, 268-pound Howard in person.

Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana’s All-Star center, said this week that Howard will “be considered one of the best centers in the league in a couple of years.” Blazers center Joel Przybilla said Howard is “as good as it gets” because of his strength and explosiveness.

And Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who spent the summer with Howard as an assistant coach on Team USA, is confident enough to already predict what’s in store for the NBA.

“He’s going to dominate this league at some point,” McMillan said. “And it’s probably going to be pretty soon.”

And chances are, Howard will have a blast doing it.

Staying loose

Howard is often smiling and usually joking around, as evidenced by his Thursday postpractice dance. Howard and his teammates often mimic coach Brian Hill, a straight-laced, all-business coach. Before long, the coach is often forced to break his no-nonsense facade by cracking a smile at Howard’s antics.

“This has to be the silliest team in basketball, and Dwight has to be right at the top of it all,” Smith said. “At times, he can act like he is 12, and at other times like he is 35.”

He carts his video games onto the team plane and has no qualms catching heat from his teammates as he watches Disney’s animated film “Finding Nemo.” On Thursday, he giggled his way through a shooting contest, openly cheating when announcing how many shots his team had made, justifying the fib by stating that veteran Bo Outlaw — never known for his shooting touch — was on his team.

“The only way we are going to win and be successful is if we have fun,” Howard said. “I know when everyone is uptight or needs a laugh, and I get us going. But I also have to take care of business. And when we are on the court, it’s time to be serious, and I will be serious.”

The video games, poking fun at Hill and watching cartoon movies are part of the 12-year-old that Smith talks about. The 35-year-old comes through during games, when Howard this season has continually provided the big baskets, big rebounds and big blocks when needed.

“When I say he is 35, he’s carrying this basketball team,” Smith said. “And when I say he still has a ways to go, that is in relation to him being that 18-year-old we drafted, to him becoming a mature player. He is going in that direction. You can see it every night, but he is not there yet.”

Imagine then, what Kevin Garnett must be thinking after Howard posted 21 points and 22 rebounds this season against Minnesota. And imagine what Charlotte, and then Memphis, must be thinking after Howard had back-to-back games of 24 points and 21 rebounds against the Bobcats, and 24 points and 23 rebounds against the Grizzlies last month.

It was the first time a player had recorded back-to-back games of 20 points and 20 rebounds since Tim Duncan did it for the Spurs in the 2003-04 season.

After Wednesday night’s victory in Seattle, during which Howard had 24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks and made all eight of his shots, he is averaging 17.1 points, and his 13.6 rebounds per game put him in position to become the youngest player to lead the NBA in rebounding.

Room for improvement

But the Magic insist there is work to do. At times, Howard has struggled with identifying, and then handling, double-teams. He’s had games with eight and five turnovers, and against Seattle on Wednesday, he had four turnovers.

Along the way, Howard said he needs to develop a jump shot — a facet he says he is working on, but has yet to try during a game this season. And his free throw shooting — he made 59 percent last season — is improving (he’s shooting 66.7 percent) but needs work.

Howard, who says he is motivated to be remembered as one of the greatest to ever play the game, said his struggle these days is to remain focused on the work at hand. To do so, he said he draws from a lesson he learned when he was an emerging high school star in Atlanta at age 15. He broke a leg after a defender contested his dunk during a game.

“At the time I broke my leg, I thought I was the man,” Howard said. “I was getting letters from colleges, people were paying attention to me. . . . I thought I was on top of the world. But God had a way to help me, and (breaking his leg) was what it was. It taught me to stay humble, not get complacent.”

The Magic is doing its best to keep Howard driven, constantly telling him he has not arrived, constantly working with him on how to better handle the nightly double-teams.

But at the same time, the Magic front office can’t help itself from imagining when the NBA’s next great player will emerge, full force. The Magic had a sense it would happen in 2004, when Orlando selected Howard out of high school with the No. 1 pick, even though draft “experts” thought Connecticut forward Emeka Okafor should have been the choice.

“It was not as tough of choice that people probably made it out to be,” Smith said. “I always say that Emeka is going to be a great player, but that Dwight is going to be a special player. And I think we are starting to see, he is going to be special.”