Howardís stock keeps soaring
By Travis Reed
ORLANDO, Fla. ó Dwight Howard stayed after practice, as usual, to shoot free throws. Orlando Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing kept feeding him the ball.
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?
iI ainít in my prime yet,î Howard answered, swiftly ending the argument.
For the rest of the NBA, thatís downright scary.
Not through his fourth full season, Howard is on pace to become the NBAís 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 ó by more than a year ó to reach 3,000 rebounds. He has an NBA-best eight games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds.
With those numbers itís easy to forget how much Howard has grown. It wasnít 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. Heís still the youngest player on the Magic and still the biggest cutup.
When Howardís lip swelled after he busted it in practice, he joked about hitting it on the rim. He started calling himself iShanaynay,î a big-mouthed female character Martin Lawrence played in the í90s.
iHow you doiiiin?î 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 OíNeal 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 ó 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 him is ipotential.î
iHe has a long way to go,î Orlando general manager Otis Smith said. iI think thatís the beauty of him, and some of the things that heís doing that are even amazing him. His growth chart for what heís going to do, we havenít seen the tip of the iceberg yet.î
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 coachís nudge with a 20-point, 20-rebound game. He calls his son ithe best thing in my life.î
iI keep basketball and fatherhood separate,î Howard said. iBut leadership is big for our team, and Iím one of the leaders.î