Column: Howard returns home looking to regain his swagger

ATLANTA (AP) Dwight Howard has played all of one game for the Atlanta Hawks.

He's already the center of attention.

On opening night, Howard led his new teammates in a raucous display of bouncing and screaming during the pregame introductions. When it was over, with the Hawks victorious and their new center having provided a tantalizing glimpse of the skills that made him one of the NBA's most feared players, Howard worked the locker room from one end to the other, doling out good-natured ribbing to anyone who got within his imposing shadow.

Superman has come home. Maybe he's found his swagger.

''I just tried to zone out and focus on the task at hand,'' Howard said at the end of the night, sitting at his locker surrounded by reporters and cameras and microphones. ''I've been in a lot of opening nights and the worst thing you can do is lay an egg in the first game.''

Of course, it's going to take more than one game to make up for what happened over the last several seasons.

Still, Howard's homecoming could wind up having a bigger impact on the league than some of those more touted moves this past summer.

If all goes according to Atlanta's plan, Howard will reclaim his place among the NBA's elite. He'll lead the league in rebounding, as he did through most of his glory years with the Orlando Magic, and give the Hawks the sort of imposing presence they've been missing in the lane, someone who can alter shots and cover up his teammates' mistakes and take some of the burden off teammates such as three-time All-Star Paul Millsap, who is still Atlanta's best player.

That's the way it worked Thursday night in a 114-99 victory over the Washington Wizards. Howard grabbed 19 rebounds, more than anyone in an Atlanta uniform had all of last season, and continually sparked the transition game by with crisp passes to teammates fast-breaking in the opposite direction. Freed of carrying a big load on the glass, Millsap led the Hawks with 28 points.

''I didn't have to get down there and bang as much,'' Millsap said. ''When a guy like Dwight's down there and securing the rebounds, he's taking a lot of the load off me. I think throughout the course of this season, I'll be a lot fresher, be able to do a little bit more on the offensive end.''

You might remember Howard as one of the league's most dominant players, but it's not something that comes immediately to mind. He got lost along the way, his once Hall of Fame-bound career sliding off the rails during a miserable one-year layover with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, followed by three forgettable seasons trying to coexist with James Harden on the Houston Rockets.

Not only did Howard's production suffer, but he went from one of the league's most likable, endearing players to someone who came across as whiny and petulant, self-absorbed by his frequent trade demands and struggling to mesh with personalities as big as his own.

When he became a free agent this past summer, Howard hardly had a pick of destinations or the leverage to name his price. He was certainly an intriguing piece in the offseason puzzle, but not as crucial to completing the picture as Kevin Durant landing with the Golden State Warriors, or Dwyane Wade taking off for the Chicago Bulls, or Derrick Rose being traded to the New York Knicks.

Howard fell in with the next wave of shuffling, more along the lines of Pau Gasol heading to San Antonio or Andrew Bogut being dealt to Dallas to create cap space. In fact, there were plenty of people questioning whether the Hawks had done the right thing when they doled out a three-year, $70 million deal to Howard and allowed undersized but more versatile center Al Horford to bolt for the Boston Celtics.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was convinced that Howard, who has been in the league for 13 years but is still only 31, could be a franchise player once again.

After the Hawks plummeted from 60 wins and the top seed in the East two seasons ago to a quick second-round exit from the playoffs this past spring, Budenholzer decided a dramatic overhaul was in order. Howard was eager to return to the city he grew up in and still calls home - a striking change from his last foray into free agency, when he pretty much forwarded the Hawks' calls straight to voicemail.

This time around, he needed the Hawks as much as they needed him.

For Howard, this is his best shot - maybe his last shot - at redemption and rejuvenation. He's on a team where he can again be the loudest voice in the room, where he doesn't have to worry about Bryant putting him down or Harden demanding the spotlight.

''His work and his commitment to everything we're doing, I'm very, very pleased with it,'' Budenholzer said. ''I think he's looking forward to being a force.''

Maybe he'll even be able to break out that cape again.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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