110--106 road loss to the Phoenix Suns was forgotten—apparently, in all of
about two minutes—asOrlando 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.
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.
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
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.
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."