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Growth Spurt
December 10, 2007
With his childlike enthusiasm and spectacular athleticism, rebounding and dunking savant Dwight Howard, in only his fourth year, has quickly turned the NBA into his own Magic kingdom
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December 10, 2007

Growth Spurt

With his childlike enthusiasm and spectacular athleticism, rebounding and dunking savant Dwight Howard, in only his fourth year, has quickly turned the NBA into his own Magic kingdom

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AN AGONIZING 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.

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."

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