Weekly Countdown: Scary thought: Magic's Howard has room to grow
As productive as he is already, Dwight Howard expects much more improvement
Howard has a jovial personaility, but he's also very demanding of himself
More topics: The Warriors' young left-handers and the Celtics' short tempers
5 Ways to gauge Dwight Howard
5. As the league's dominant center. Howard is averaging a career-best 21.5 points while leading the league with 14.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. He turns 23 Monday, and this is his fifth season with Orlando since he turned pro as the No. 1 pick from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. In previous eras, Howard would be beginning his second NBA month after four years in college. As it stands now, he has already amassed close to 6,000 points and more than 4,000 rebounds.
"It's amazing at his age to think that he's got another 12-13-14 years,'' Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "And he's just going to get better and better and smarter and smarter.''
As Howard matures, he may find fewer and fewer rivals at his position.
"It seems to me that in our league they've continued to change the rules and they've really tried as much as they could to legislate against post play,'' Van Gundy said. "They've tried to make it more of a perimeter game. I also think it's hard work down there, so a lot of young kids growing up -- even at the size of 6-11 or 7 feet -- want to be perimeter players. So we're just not getting as many true low-post guys.
"I think there's going to be fewer and fewer centers, and if you look at the league now among centers that teams really try to go to on the offensive end -- because I think there are some very good defensive centers -- we're going to Dwight, [the Rockets] go to Yao [Ming] obviously, Tim Duncan's essentially a center, and Milwaukee's going to [Andrew] Bogut. I'm probably missing a few, but it's few and far between on the number of true offensive centers, and I don't think that number's going to get a lot bigger.''
Howard isn't interested in becoming the dominant center in the NBA eventually.
"Not in a year or two,'' he said. "I'm trying to be there right now, I'm trying to be there forever. I want to be one of the most dominant players -- not just [among] centers, but one of the most dominant players.''
4. As a defender. The Magic were inspired to see Howard play a crucial but limited role while averaging 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds for the gold-medal-winning Olympic team last summer.
"For me, it was about him getting to understand the roles of other guys,'' Orlando general manager Otis Smith said. "He had to understand what the 12th man is going through, what the guy who doesn't have the starting role goes through. For the Olympics, he had to rebound and control the lane and block shots, and you know, you don't always like your role. He wasn't fond of it early; I think he got accustomed to it late. But I just want him to have a better appreciation for a guy like [Magic veteran backup] Tony Battie. If you can have an appreciation for him, then you can understand where everybody's coming from.''
Said Van Gundy: "It very well may be part of it from the Olympic experience, but he has had a better defensive mentality -- particularly as a help defender in terms of blocking shots. In the Olympics, they didn't throw him the ball as much and his main role was to block shots and to defend, so I think he got into that mentality.''
One of Howard's ultimate goals is to overtake Kevin Garnett as Defensive Player of the Year. While he may put up superior numbers, Howard must still develop as a leader who demands and inspires teammates to defend alongside him. But it's asking too much for those skills to mature as he turns 23.
"I'm the youngest guy on the team,'' Howard said. "I may have been here the longest, but I'm the youngest. Which is weird. Even though I am the youngest, I've got a lot of responsibilities. My teammates look to me to be serious on the court or when we need a job to get done.''
3. As a scorer. "When I first got here, he just wanted to dunk everything,'' said forward Rashard Lewis, in his second year with the Magic. "He tried to dunk the ball every time he got it. But he's really worked on his touch, his jump hook, and he's shooting a little jumper off the glass and in the post. You can tell in practice he's not trying to dunk the ball every time he makes a move.''
Because of Howard's presence in the low post, Smith is taking an old-school approach to building the team around him, as if constructing a roster in the center-dominated 1970s.
"The key for us is to make sure you always have shooters,'' the GM said. "You've got to keep shooters around him to make his life a lot easier. It's difficult when you're not making shots, but if you're making shots, then the team has to pick their poison.''
Assistant coach Patrick Ewing must continue helping Howard develop his moves down low, as well as the turnaround jumper that will multiply his options from the block.
"He's playing with more patience and poise in the low post when people are coming at him,'' Van Gundy said. "That's still a process, and there are times when he may still go too quick, make mistakes and force issues, but for the most part he's gotten a lot better.
"His footwork is very, very good. I think it is a matter of getting more deception, more shot fakes, not doing everything in the same rhythm and not trying to just go over the top of everybody, which he can do most of the time. But against the better centers, [he needs] the shot fake, the step-through to reverse -- and he's got the footwork to do it.''
But Howard remains only a 57.5 percent free throw shooter. His own assessment is blunt: "I think I'm 25 percent of where I can be,'' he said of his offensive game.
He does, however, rank 12th in scoring and second in shooting (59.3 percent).
"But I can be a lot better. I've got a long way to go,'' he said, and he breaks into a smile. "You know what I'm saying? Get better every day, baby.''
2. As a showman. If LeBron James' goal is to take over for Michael Jordan as America's No. 1 star who leads the world in sports marketing, then Howard intends to replace Shaquille O'Neal as the dominant big man as well as the league's leading prankster. He made his intentions plain last February when he pulled on a red cape to score like Superman during the slam dunk contest at All-Star weekend.
Howard routinely tries to crack jokes with reporters during interviews.
"I'm getting old man, look at me,'' he said during a recent pregame interview. "I've got a moustache now, facial hair.''
What about your teeth, someone wanted to know.
"When you get old, you might see that your teeth will fall out,'' Howard told a reporter who happens to be twice his age. "Unfortunately, my teeth fell out a year ago.''
Of course this is not true.
"It's hard when you're playing at 57 and trying to play with these young cats,'' Howard went on, affecting tears in his eyes. "I remember seeing Kevin Garnett grow up. I watched him as a little boy.''
1. As a serious guy. Howard could never have improved so quickly if he weren't so serious about his job. "The other night [against Indiana] I had 32 and 21, and I still felt I didn't play as good as I could because I missed some free throws,'' he said. "I had four blocks, but there were a lot of shots I didn't even try to block. And a couple times in the post I let my man get some easy buckets, and I was upset about that.''
He complained about his performance among friends later that night.
"They understand,'' he said. "I've told them all the time, I don't want to see no newspapers and no magazines with me in it unless it's off the court. But if it's basketball-wise, I don't want to see it. I just want to keep myself level-headed.
"I'm very serious about what I want to accomplish in my life. I've talked to a couple of the great players -- Hakeem [Olajuwon], Dikembe [Mutombo], Patrick, even Tony Battie -- that while I'm young, while I've got all my talent and my legs, my body, I've got to try to get as much done as I can now instead of trying to wait until I get older. Start building now while I've got a lot to learn. I'm still kind of raw, so try to do as much as I can now to put myself at a level where I'll be remembered for something. Not just for a dunk contest as Superman, but for other things -- blocking shots, rebounding, stuff like that.''
If Howard is playing at 25 percent of his potential, the rest of the league isn't looking forward to the day he crosses the 50 percent threshold.
"Once he gets that 5-to-10-foot range taken care of, it's over,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Howard's mid-range jump shot. "I mean, it's over. And it's going to happen, because he works on it. He's one young player who works diligently on his game. I hear about him all summer, I know where he's at, my son works out with him. So you just know it's coming.
"I say the same thing about him that I say about LeBron. As good as LeBron is now, in five years it's going to be a joke.''
And when that day comes, Rivers said he'll be looking for another job: "I'm doing TV.''