NEW YORK -- The question posed to Dwight Howard sounded a little foolish, even to the reporter asking it.
"Dwight," I asked Orlando's hulking center, "do you ever think you will be a finesse player?"
Finesse? Howard? Those words go together like Red Bull and mayonnaise. With Yao Ming sidelined and Shaquille O'Neal several years past his prime, Howard is virtually peerless as a power player. His 6-foot-11, 265-pound frame is as sturdy as they come and his 40-inch vertical allows him to play well above the rim. It's why Howard lets a sly smile slip before answering the question.
"Why play outside?" Howard asked. "That wouldn't be smart. If you can get to the rim every time, you get to the rim. You're not going to settle. You take what you want. That's the best way to play."
Howard is right, of course. No player in the NBA gets to the rim as easily as he does. His 211 dunks are by far the most in the league, 24 more than Blake Griffin and 67 ahead of DeAndre Jordan. It's what Howard is best at and it's exactly the way Magic coach Stan Van Gundy wants him to play.
"He's going to make you defend him in the paint first," Van Gundy said. "For him to run around and become a 17-foot jump shooter strictly would not be very smart and Dwight's a very smart guy. He knows where his strengths are and he is going to go to that."
Certainly Howard, 25, isn't about to abandon the power game. He's not going to morph into Patrick Ewing just because Ewing sits a few seats down from him on the Magic bench and he's not going to become Hakeem Olajuwon just because he worked on a few well-documented moves with Hakeem over the summer. But there are signs he is starting to become more comfortable with their style of play.
Check the numbers. According to hoopdata.com, Howard is averaging career highs in attempts from 10-15 feet (1.1 per game) and 16-23 feet (0.7) while making a career best 2.1 shots per game from 3-9 feet. Midway through the fourth quarter of the Knicks' 113-106 overtime win on Monday, Howard coolly drained an 18-foot jump shot that gave the Magic a two-point lead. After the Knicks tied it up on the next possession, Howard executed a brilliant spin move on Amar'e Stoudemire that ended in a one-handed dunk.
"In the past, if you stayed between him and the basket, you were good," said a Western Conference scout. "And to get 50 [points] he would need 20 dunks since he can't shoot free throws and didn't have any moves. Now, he can score on the block. He has developed a nice right handed hook that was really inconsistent in previous years."
Added an East scout, "His footwork is a lot better. You can tell he's much more comfortable posting and facing up."
Credit Howard for putting in the work. Over the summer, Howard would go to the gym alone and stay until he made 1,000 jump shots. With practice time precious during the season, Howard will often arrive early or stay late to work on his perimeter game. He is averaging a career-high 23.1 points per game while shooting better than 60 percent (60.1) for the second straight season. Van Gundy said he is impressed with how Howard's counter jump shot has improved; Ewing said his faceup game has shown the most progress.
By working on his game now, Ewing said, Howard can prolong his career later.
"The older you get, the less athletic you get," Ewing said. "Being able to hit that face up jump shot with more consistency and adding things to his game will be big. He'll do it, too. He's improving every year."