Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, and the Greatest NBA Draft in Magic History

Twenty years ago this month, the Orlando Magic drafted a high school star named Dwight Howard with the No. 1 overall pick and then Jameer Nelson, the college player of the year, with the 20th pick. Five playoff seasons would follow.
Apr 11, 2011; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson (14) celebrates with center Dwight Howard (12) during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 11, 2011; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson (14) celebrates with center Dwight Howard (12) during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports / Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

ORLANDO — We are 20 days away from the NBA Draft and 20 years removed from the greatest draft in Orlando Magic history. 

The Magic has a sparse record in 35 years for identifying talent and keeping it.

Most of Orlando's drafts are barely memorable. There have been good, not great, players (Nick Anderson, JJ Redick) and players who ended up doing their best work somewhere else (Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis).

There have been five All-Stars:

  • 1992, Shaquille O'Neal. One of the greatest players in NBA history left Orlando after four seasons and enjoyed his greatest achievements with the Los Angeles Lakers.
  • 1993, Penny Hardaway. He comes with an asterisk. Hardaway was drafted by Golden State, which traded him to Orlando for its No. 1 pick, Chris Webber.
  • 2022, Paolo Banchero. The No. 1 overall pick is the current cornerstone of a playoff team.

And then there was 2004, when the Magic nailed it, selecting the other two All-Stars with the No. 1 and No. 20 overall picks — center Dwight Howard and guard Jameer Nelson.

They played their first eight seasons together in Orlando while managing to flourish both as a team and as individuals.

Howard, the third high schooler drafted No. 1 overall, was 18 years old but with a grown man's body. Not only did he wear a Superman cape to win the All-Star Game dunk contest, but his body held up as if he were the Man of Steel.

In five of Howard’s first six seasons, he played in all 82 games, and he still holds franchise records for most minutes played, points, blocks, and rebounds. Howard’s reign of dominance began at age 21 when he made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams. That 2006-07 season began the most successful six-year span of any player in Orlando’s history.

In the next five years:

  • Howard would finish top seven in MVP voting every season.
  • He became the first player to win Defensive Player of the Year three times in a row (2008-10).
  • He made first-team All-NBA and All-Defensive team every season.
  • He led the league in rebounding four times and in blocked shots twice. 
  • Won the 2008 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

Howard's departure in 2012 to the Los Angeles Lakers via trade left a stain on his Magic legacy, but he recently expressed remorse and hope for reconciliation while making a podcast appearance on The OGs.

“It's not as good as I would want it to be,” Howard said regarding his current relationship with the Magic. “I think people are still upset over how things ended when I was there, and I would love to rewrite those wrongs because at the time of coming into the league, I'm 18 years old and I don't know any better. So I guess when I got out of there, it was just a lot of turmoil, a lot of hate, a lot of bitterness, and I would love to change that around. ... If I could go back with a team, I gotta go back with the Magic. It's only right."

Regardless of where Howard's relationship currently stands with the organization, the 2004 draft was great if only because Howard became the best player in franchise history. But getting Nelson, the franchise’s all-time assist leader, made that draft extraordinary.

Just six feet tall, Nelson was a scorer and a playmaker who won just about every individual national award during his senior year at Saint Joseph's in Philadelphia.

In the NBA, before Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors altered how basketball is played, Nelson was one of the league's top three-point shooters. In Orlando, he shot 38 percent or better from beyond the arc in six of his 10 seasons

With Howard as a focal point, Nelson would become more of a facilitator. He averaged 12.5 points and 4.9 assists. And the Magic thrived.

Orlando went to the playoffs five seasons in a row from 2007 to 2011, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals twice and losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008-09 NBA Finals. 

Nelson tweeted that his best NBA memories came during his decade with the Magic.

Where are they now?

Howard played for seven NBA teams in his next 10 seasons. In 2020, his 17th year in the league, Howard won his only championship.

He was years removed from being a star, but Howard was an important contributor for the Lakers as a rebounder and defender.

Now 38, Howard is playing in Taiwan where he just became a part-owner of the entire league.

As for Nelson, he would spend four more seasons in the NBA after his 10 years in Orlando. Today, Nelson is general manager for the Philadelphia 76ers' G League team, the Delaware Blue Coats.

“I’m very appreciative of them allowing me to kind of dip my toe in different pools,” Nelson said regarding the opportunity to be an executive. "For me, it’s like, can we do this better, can we do that better? Just my suggestions. I don’t think I’ve been overbearing, because the coaching staff, they’ve come to me and asked for my suggestions.”

Both men may be involved with teams in other leagues, but they'll always have a legacy with the Magic.

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Isaiah Deanda