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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Ready or not, here he comes

Dwight Howard II is headed to the pros, and could be the No. 1 pick

Posted: Tuesday March 2, 2004 3:58PM; Updated: Tuesday March 2, 2004 3:58PM
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  p1_dwighthoward_Damian Strohmeyer.jpg
Dwight Howard shouldn't last long on the draft board.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

ROME, Ga. -- "Get some ice,'' Sheryl Howard yells from across court.

Mom paces above her second-row bleacher seat. Dad is a row below, chin firmly in hand, as the franchise -- Dwight Howard II, the best schoolboy player in the country -- is down in pain after banging his left knee against that of another player's in a scramble for a loose ball.

It ends up no big deal and Howard bounces back Monday night to lead Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy to a berth in the Georgia state high school final four (His modest line: 21 points, 8 boards, 6 blocks). But it's scary stuff when you're kid -- who is projected to be the first pick in the NBA draft in June (definitely no worse than the second choice) and has three-year, $10 million contract practically waiting for him -- hits the deck.

"Well, yeah, it gets your attention,'' says dad, Dwight Sr., relieved. "He fractured his growth plate two years ago. Just in one second. One play -- boom.''

So Dickie V, Billy Packer and everyone else with a microphone or keyboard can hold the advice. Forget the a-little-bit-of-college-is-good spiel. In this case, dad has already interviewed a half dozen potential agents, the 18-year-old has officially set foot on just one college campus (North Carolina) and within a week of his final high school game -- maybe even that night -- Howard will announce his pro plans.

"I know what I want to do, but I need to tell everybody else,'' Dwight II says. "It's been a big dream of mine to go to the NBA since I was two years old. I wanted go to the NBA as a high schooler.''

OK, so maybe most toddlers aren't thinking pro ball, but why not go for it now? Scouts are saying the 18-year-old and Connecticut junior forward Emeka Okafor are the studs of the draft, so Howard will possibly be the third high school player -- after Kwame Brown and LeBron James -- to be chosen No. 1 overall. At 6-foot-11, he displays the fluidity, court sense and all-around game of a young Danny Manning before two major knee surgeries cut deeply into his skills.

Howard's put on 25 pounds since last summer, up to 250. The day after the season ends he promises to be in the weight room.

This is a kid who grew up wanting to play for the Atlanta Hawks, and the club obviously is putting itself in better position to draft him by gutting its roster with recent trades. His dad is already contemplating local endorsement deals. And so if the Ping-Pong balls fall right, Howard could do for his hometown club what James is doing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"It wouldn't make sense to go to college right now if he's projected to be No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 in draft,'' Mr. Howard explains. "If you went to college for four years your stock could fall. In three years another LeBron James might come along.''

That's the deal. Though a terrific character person and a wonderful talent, no one in the NBA projects Howard as the second coming of King James. It might be three or four years into Howard's career before he really shines, even.

"LeBron James has an unusual fire in him,'' says a top college coach. "You don't have to worry about Dwight getting in trouble off the court. They don't come any better than this kid. But he doesn't really know how to play hard yet. See, LeBron knew how to play hard coming in the door. I watched him several times in AAU competitions and here was a kid who took no prisoners. Dwight sometimes can have fun out there and fun stops when you get up to that level.''

Howard is a wholesome, humble kid whose favorite movie is the G-rated Finding Nemo. A year ago this time, LeBron was touring around in a pricey Hummer and entangled in a fight over his high school eligibility. Howard drives an '84 Ford Crown Victoria, purchased by his dad from a church member, and serves as co-president of the student council.

The kid reveals he's been fasting the past seven weeks, not from food but what he deems to be worldly vices. "Just to make sure I keep God in front of me and not let anything sidetrack me,'' he says. That means no rap music, only gospel. No soft drinks. No cursing. And this week, no telephone.

Disciplen and order is rooted in the family. His father is a Georgia state trooper and part-time athletic director at the high school. His mother is a teacher at  Southwest Atlanta Christian. Both sit courtside in the team's maroon and gray warm-ups, always making sure Dwight II signs every autograph request before heading home.

His uncle, Paul Howard, is the local district attorney best known for prosecuting a case against Baltimore Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis. The DA is part of an agent selection committee that also includes an associate pastor and the family accountant. The early favorite to represent Howard is Chicago-based Hank Thomas, who represents Raptors center Chris Bosh.

According to dad, a gig for his son with the hometown Hawks would be ideal, but the family is going to be by Howard's side no matter where he ends up. "We've tried to instill in him that no matter what the situation is you as individual have to work hard,'' Dwight Sr. says. "You can get attached with these guys who are veterans, who are interested only in making the money -- that is why it is going to be very critical to stay with him, keep him focused on his goal.''

Someday the parents will have to pull back, but for now it's hard to fault their concern for the franchise.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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