Tuesday December 4th, 2007

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.

That flurry of point-blank buckets does raise a question, though: Is Howard merely a ridiculously prodigious dunking machine? Thankfully for the Magic, all that jamming has been accompanied by an improved around-the-basket game -- he can go over a defender or spin around one, finishing with either hand -- that has helped Howard increase his scoring average by almost six points from last season. And his real advantage on other big men is that he can beat them down the floor. On Sunday night against the Lakers, for example, he took a crafty lead pass from Turkoglu to score on a transition dunk down the stretch, the key play in an impressive 104-97 win, the Magic's first in L.A. since 1996.

But Howard still looks tentative facing the basket and awkward at the foul line, where he was shooting 60.7% through Sunday, better than Shaquille O'Neal but not good enough to get the ball late in tight games, when opponents are likely to hack him.

Last summer Howard worked two hours a day, five days a week with freelance shooting coach Charles Richardson, trying to extend his range to the college three-point line. So far he is only reliable inside eight feet but he should soon move farther out on the floor; in Magic assistant Patrick Ewing he has a tutor who was one of the greatest perimeter-shooting big men in NBA history. "Dwight will eventually need to get more range on his jumper, but he won't have to take it out as far as I did," says Ewing. "He'll get more easy baskets because he's so good in transition and so athletic. And he has better shooters around him than I did."

Howard's rebounding has also increased significantly (he averaged 12.3 last season), for which he has no explanation. But given his indefatigability -- "I've never seen a big man with his stamina," says Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy -- and the Magic's dearth of board crashers, he has an excellent chance to become the youngest rebounding king in league history.

Maybe the best thing about Howard, though, is that he still has the same infectious joy he had when he came into the league as an 18-year-old. He does spot-on impersonations of Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith, but he is proudest of his Shaq, which was sampled on the Amway Arena scoreboard before Orlando's Nov. 24 game against O'Neal and the Miami Heat. (Shaq got a chuckle out of Howard's impression of him at a press conference but found little humor in the Heat's 120-99 loss.) With Howard as ringleader -- "the silliest player on the league's silliest team," says Smith -- almost all the Magic mimic backup center Adonal Foyle's Caribbean-British accent. That includes Turkoglu, whose Foyle comes with a Turkish twist.

Howard's routines are mostly PG-13. Having been raised in a religious household, he still reads his Bible, leads team prayer sessions and swears that alcohol has not, and will not, touch his lips, even if the Magic one day uncorks championship champagne. "My teammates ask me that all the time," he says, "and I'm not going to drink it. And when they spray it, I'll keep my mouth closed."

His attitude about the All-Star Weekend's slam-dunk contest speaks to his refreshing enthusiasm. Last February, Howard received a middling score after slapping a sticker of himself on the backboard with his left hand (at a height later measured at 12' 6") before dunking with his right. "The judges just didn't get it," he says in as somber a tone as he ever takes. But even though he felt jobbed in his first appearance, Howard couldn't be more excited about the 2008 competition in New Orleans, which many of his fellow All-Stars will no doubt snub. "If they'll have me," he says, "I'll be there."

Howard has been working on a kiss-the-rim dunk (his lips have survived practice rounds, but he has bumped the back of his head hard on the iron) and one in which point guard Jameer Nelson throws the ball over the backboard from behind the basket and Howard jams in some outrageous way that he says he'll "figure out on the way down." He is on a mission to prove that a big man can be acrobatic. "I don't think people realize how hard it is," says Howard, "for a guy to get 265 pounds up in the air and do some stuff."

His mission with the Magic -- to lift a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 1996 (when its center was O'Neal) to the league's elite -- is more meaningful. The quick start notwithstanding, it won't be easy. Van Gundy wants to play up-tempo to keep defenses from loading up on Howard, but his quarterbacks, Nelson (who is generously listed at 6 feet) and Arroyo, have not shown that they can finish or make decisions on the fly. Power forward Rashard Lewis, who was given a six-year, $110 million deal in July after a sign-and-trade with the Sonics (Seattle got a second-round pick and a $9 million trade exception), gives Orlando a much-needed three-point threat, but he has been an All-Star only once in nine seasons. The Magic is weak at two guard (journeyman Keith Bogans starts), and the players' ain't-we-got-fun attitude may not help. "They need to get on each other a little bit more when somebody screws up," says Smith. Turkoglu has a hard edge, but co-captains Howard and Nelson (Van Gundy named them before the start of the season) are not, by nature, confrontational souls.

Last Friday everything Howard and his team are -- and everything they are not -- was on display at US Airways Center, where Howard went up against All-Star Amaré Stoudemire, who just three seasons ago was the league's jaw-droppingly athletic young center of the moment. Howard is fond of warming up before games in sleeveless, skintight white Under Armour. "Dwight likes his body," Smith observed wryly, watching Howard loosen up. "Then again, if most guys had his body, they'd probably come out with even less on."

The Suns had predicated their game plan on stopping Howard -- "The first thing we have to figure out," coach Mike D'Antoni said in his morning coaches meeting, "is when to hit [double-team] him" -- and getting off to the sort of good start that would usually demoralize a young visiting team. Which is exactly what happened. In the first quarter Howard seemed intent on covering the turnover spectrum (offensive foul, three-second violation that wiped away a basket, pass thrown behind a cutter, pass thrown too far in front of a cutter), and Phoenix built a 31-16 lead.

But over the next 36 minutes Orlando outplayed the Suns. Howard vacuumed up every rebound in his vicinity. He dunked on follow shots, dunked on spin moves, dunked when he rolled to the basket after setting high screens for Nelson or Arroyo. Howard's athleticism is most manifest in those situations -- the passer need only throw the ball, almost blindly, in the general direction of the basket, knowing that Howard will swoop in and put it through. "If you make just a pretty good pass," says Arroyo, "he's going to do something alien with it, something out of this world."

On one fourth-quarter play Howard pushed Phoenix guard Steve Nash away with his left hand and dunked with his right; on another he brushed off forward Shawn Marion and sent the Matrix flying. At one point Suns guard Raja Bell, never one to shy away from contact, asked assistant Alvin Gentry what approach to take when Howard comes steaming down the lane on a screen-and-roll.

"Should I step in and plug?" said Bell.

"I'd just get the hell out of the way in that situation," answered Gentry.

"Just making sure we were on the same page," said Bell.

Still, Orlando's weaknesses were exposed down the stretch. The guards or Lewis misfired on perimeter shots after failing to get Howard a touch down low. Or maybe they didn't pass to him for fear that Phoenix would put him on the line, where he wound up finishing with only four makes in 10 attempts. With 6.9 seconds left Lewis missed a good-look three-pointer that would have given the Magic a one-point lead, and the Suns held on for the win.

But all everyone talked about after the game was Howard's utter physicality, the fact that his outlandish numbers (30 points -- 16 of them on dunks -- and 23 rebounds) came so easily, the reality that the gifted Stoudemire (19 points, 10 rebounds) seemed to shrink in the younger man's presence. "He's a force down there," Stoudemire said. "Howard's game is pretty much based on power, and I'm a different center. I'm a versatile center and a little farther-from-the-basket type of player."

If that seems like a dig, well, it's not inaccurate. Howard must continue to find the balance between adding finesse and building on his forte, which, he acknowledges, "is dominating in the paint." And he must also balance being a good guy off the court with being an assassin on it. "I don't know why I wouldn't act like I'm having a good time because I am having a good time," says Howard. "But I know when to turn it on."

There hasn't been much magic in Orlando since Shaq led the team to the Finals in 1995. It will be fascinating to see if another very big man who knows how to play the clown can do the same thing.

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