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None of the bad things you've come to associate with high school players who go straight to the NBA applies to Dwight Howard. He's not in it for the money, he has no need for a posse of yes-men assuring him that he's the real deal, and his judgment will not be impaired by immaturity. On the contrary: After being taken with one of the first two picks in the June 24 draft, the 18-year-old Howard may be an inspiring change of pace. Says his father, Dwight Sr., a Georgia state trooper, "This has the makings of a modern Biblical story." � Despite his tender years, the 6'10", 240-pound Howard is one of the few sure things in what promises to be the least predictable draft ever (chart, page 58), with top teams looking to deal and a raft of teens and Europeans who could crack the lottery. Despite persistent back problems, 6'10" UConn power forward Emeka Okafor is the consensus No. 1 choice. Howard is likely to go next; the Atlanta Hawks are among the teams that covet him, and they may package their No. 6 pick for the Los Angeles Clippers' No. 2. "You look at everything Howard can do, and you say maybe, just maybe, you're looking at a top 50 alltime player," says a veteran NBA scout whose team is not in the lottery. "I don't know if you can say that about Okafor."
Howard is strong, fundamentally sound and blessed with a playmaker's mentality that is rare among big men. His parents preached discipline, dedication and a sense of purpose to him and his siblings—5'10" TaShanda, a former center at Fort Valley (Ga.) State, and Jahaziel, a 6'3" freshman at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Sheryl Howard endured five miscarriages, which left her children feeling that they had somehow been chosen. "We lost two sets of twins," says Dwight Sr. "I would question God all the time, Why does this have to happen?' " But his doubts gave way to an abiding faith: "We have come to realize that our three kids are a living testament to the grace and wisdom of God, and that God allowed them to be here to worship and glorify Him."
When Dwight Jr. looks at the NBA logo, he imagines a cross superimposed over the slaloming outline of Jerry West. Howard decided to turn pro now because NBA scouts persuaded him that he was ready, but he had another reason. "The main purpose for me is to preach the word of God in the NBA," he says. "When I say preach, that doesn't mean standing on a podium before a game and trying to tell everybody to follow Christ."
He aims to proselytize by his actions on the court: being an aggressive defender, putting the needs of the team first and humbly doing the dirty work. During the Jordan Capital Classic, an April all-star game in College Park, Md., that served as his farewell to high school, Howard was named MVP after racking up 18 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks and only one turnover. He did not draw attention to himself with windmill dunks or no-look passes. "People will see I'm not LeBron or Carmelo," he says. Instead, Howard appears to be a younger, slimmer Tim Duncan—albeit with a mouthful of braces.
On the morning of the game, as Howard ate scrambled eggs in the team hotel near Reagan Washington National Airport, he was approached by a couple of wise men: Howard Garfinkel, who runs the renowned Five-Star high school basketball camp in Honesdale, Pa., and longtime Philadelphia youth coach Sonny Hill. As Howard signed a basketball that Hill would auction for charity, he complained that he had been forced to shoot too often during the scrimmages. "Two people besides my man were running toward me," said Howard, in a soft Georgia drawl. "The middle was wide open but no one would cut."
"You know why they didn't cut?" Hill said. "Because guys who play today don't know how to do it. They don't know how to move without the ball."
But Howard knows. By facing up in the low post and rewarding teammates who break backdoor to the basket, he could become the centerpiece of an old-fashioned motion offense capable of picking apart the collapsing defenses of today's NBA. Howard developed his passing skills by playing point guard until he reached the 10th grade, when a five-inch growth spurt changed his perspective. "That year he wrote a proclamation of the things he was going to do," says his father. An NBA career was near the top of the list.
By then Dwight Sr. was already a believer in his son's potential. As the volunteer athletic director of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, he had spent years raising funds for a new gymnasium that would enable the coed school to compete in the Georgia state basketball tournament. "I would tell people, 'You've got a possible NBA pick coming through here in the future,' " he says. He also warned—correctly—that the 624-seat gym would prove too small by Dwight's senior year. Indeed, it couldn't fit everyone during the team's run to its first state championship this season, which Dwight clinched with a triple double (26 points, 23 rebounds, 10 blocks) in the final.
Dwight's parents were high school basketball players in Swainsboro, Ga., where they grew up three doors apart and dated as teenagers. Dwight Sr. gave up sports to earn money for his education at Morehouse College. (His first job was as a brickmason's helper.) After graduating from Morris Brown, Sheryl soon found work teaching physical education at Southwest Christian, a school of 362 students that Dwight Jr. has attended since kindergarten. Outfitted in his uniform shirt with school emblem, slacks and dress shoes, he would drive to school each morning in a 1984 Ford Crown Victoria that cost his parents $900. Every day began with prayer, and at home each night Dwight Jr. was expected to do his chores—wash the dishes, take out the trash, clean his room.
Howard is also a talented pitcher and his father says that Georgia Tech (which Dwight ranked alongside North Carolina as his college of choice, had he been so disposed) would have let him play baseball as well as basketball. Perhaps the biggest concern of NBA teams will be whether Howard can bridge the huge divide between his secluded private school, where choir is his favorite subject and his teachers have promised to pray for him, and the sometimes decadent world of the NBA. "I know I'm going to have some setbacks," Howard says. "I'm in a [sheltered] area, and I'm used to everybody loving me. Now I'm going into a whirlwind where everybody's out for money or their best interests."