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Growth Spurt

With his childlike enthusiasm and spectacular athleticism, rebounding and dunking savant Dwight Howard, in only his fourth year, has quickly turned the NBA into his own Magic kingdom

Posted: Tuesday December 4, 2007 9:40AM; Updated: Tuesday December 4, 2007 9:46AM
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Under his new coach, Van Gundy (left), Howard is second in the league in rebounding while averaging 
 a career-high 23.5 points.
Under his new coach, Van Gundy (left), Howard is second in the league in rebounding while averaging a career-high 23.5 points.
John W. McDonough/SI
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An agonizing 110-106 road loss to the Phoenix Suns was forgotten -- apparently, in all of about two minutes -- as Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard zeroed in on his latest locker room target last Friday at US Airways Center. "Do you know Juntao?" he asked a reporter from China. The man looked bewildered and said no.

"How about Soo Yung?" asked Howard with a big smile. "Soo Yung? No?" The man shook his head.

During the week that the Magic spent in China in the preseason, Howard had asked dozens of locals if they were familiar with his favorite characters from the movie Rush Hour. None of them were, which left him perplexed; he figured that a Jackie Chan flick would be de rigueur viewing for all Chinese citizens.

Howard merrily slapped the confused reporter on the back and moved on to other diversions, such as shaking his booty to the music playing in his head, modeling his custom-made De Witt watch ("See, check out the second hand," he said, holding the timepiece, which showed fractions of a second, out for inspection) and ridiculing small forward Hedo Turkoglu's choice of a ski cap. "It's just not that cold, Turk," said Howard.

No one in the NBA is having more fun right now than the 6' 11", 265-pound Howard, who turns 22 on Saturday, five months after signing a five-year, $80 million contract extension. "To be young, rich and athletic," says Orlando backup guard Carlos Arroyo, "has to be a fine thing." When Howard entered the league out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy as the first pick in the 2004 draft, there were plentiful accounts of his strength and quickness -- and just as many doubts about his ability to reach the elite level. Not enough polish. Can't do much facing the basket. May never develop even a short jump shot. Doesn't pass well out of double teams.

But Howard's production this season can be measured in several ways: by his numbers (he was averaging 23.5 points, 14.6 rebounds and 2.79 blocked shots through Sunday); by his team's record (Orlando is 15-4 despite playing 12 games on the road); and by the almost nightly visuals of him soaring above the rim, glancing down at the mortals below with the serene expression he always wears and throwing down a slam. Howard had more dunks at week's end (84) than all but two teams in the league and was 47 ahead of the second-most prolific dunker, the Los Angeles Lakers' Andrew Bynum.

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