Before a recent game in Boston, Magic forward Dwight Howard stopped near the stands to sign autographs. As he methodically grabbed and scrawled, one young Celtics fan appraised the 6'11", 260-pound teenager, as if looking at a new car, and said, "Rookie of the Year, huh, Dwight?"
Howard looked up. "Yeah," he said, smiling. "It would be nice."
Nice, but not likely. Even though Howard has more than lived up to the expectations that made him the No. 1 pick, Bobcats forward Emeka Okafor, the second choice out of UConn, has played like the second coming of Charles Barkley, averaging 14.8 points and 10.9 rebounds through Sunday. If the season ended now, Okafor would be a lock to win the rookie award, even though the more promising future may belong to Howard (with Bulls guard Ben Gordon making a strong move on the outside).
Only 19, Howard was averaging 10.5 points, 9.6 rebounds (3.5 offensive, fourth most in the league) and 1.64 blocks at week's end while shooting 49.2%--numbers that compare favorably with those of Kevin Garnett and Amare Stoudemire in their first seasons out of high school. On Dec. 20 Howard became the youngest player to pull down 20 rebounds, a feat he pulled off again two months later. "He's so quick to the ball and so strong that you have to be aware of him at all times," says Celtics forward Raef LaFrentz. "He's going to be a good one. He's well ahead of the curve."
The Magic has needed him to be. From the season's outset Howard has been an integral part of the game plan, especially on defense; he's asked to play the league's top power forwards straight up. "Every night he has that matchup, and he handles it alone," says coach Johnny Davis. "He just needs to remember what kind of scoring option his man is and gain the experience [to know] when to leave him. He's unique in that he can disrupt a game defensively, which he's done on a couple of occasions."
Asked which of his blocks was the best so far, Howard says, "I don't think anybody's ever blocked Rasheed Wallace's jump shot, so for me that was fun. And I got him twice." He pauses and grins his choirboy grin. "I also got Jermaine O'Neal's, and he shoots it from behind his head too."
On offense Howard possesses two rare qualities for a big man: court vision and soft hands. But his shooting range doesn't extend much beyond his dunking range, and when posting up, he doesn't create contact to get leverage to move a defender. By his estimation Orlando runs a grand total of one play per game for him, though in time that should increase significantly. "In high school Dwight could just turn around and shoot over guys," says Davis. "Now he's gone from the kiddie pool to the adult pool."
The Magic is overseeing every aspect of that transition. A personal chef prepares Howard's meals (the goal: 5,000 calories a day); strength and conditioning coach Mick Smith supervises his lifting (he's now benching 275 and is already the strongest player on the team); assistant coach Clifford Ray drills him daily on post moves (developing a baby hook is objective No. 1); and his locker is strategically located between those of Grant Hill (to impart veteran savvy) and DeShawn Stevenson (who made the jump from high school to the pros four years ago).
All the attention is mind-bending for Howard, who has gone from Bible study with his buddies at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy in Georgia to road trips with millionaires 10 years his senior. His teammates like him--"easy-going and remarkably mature" is forward Pat Garrity's assessment. On the court Howard's biggest adjustment has been avoiding distractions. "I can watch film all day, and it looks so easy," he says, shaking his head, "but when I'm out there in front of 20,000 fans, it's a different feeling."
Howard admits that he'd love to win a certain award, but he adds that his first priority is helping the Magic (28-27 through Sunday) reach the playoffs. Besides, the laurels will come. He may not be the rookie of this year, but he's likely to be the one best remembered 10 years from now.