Wake Forest senior forward Josh Howard leads the ACC in scoring and leads the Demon Deacons in rebounding, steals and blocked shots. He can beat you with a three-pointer, a drive to the basket or a key defensive stop.

"He's the best player in our league," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said earlier this week, before his team's 94-80 double-overtime loss to No. 15 Wake Forest.

Krzyzewski is not alone in that opinion. Howard's own coach, Skip Prosser, goes one step further.

"I said before the season I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the league and now I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the country," Prosser said.

Not bad for someone who, as an infant, needed to have both of his legs broken so that he would eventually be able to walk normally. Not bad for someone who, despite growing up on the south side of Winston-Salem, N.C., was unaware of the private college just north of the city. Not bad for someone who, as a high school senior, lacked the academic standing to receive a college athletic scholarship but now is on course to graduate in May.

With the Howard leading the way, Wake Forest (17-3, 7-2) holds a slim lead over second-place Maryland (15-6, 7-3) entering tonight's matchup at Comcast Center.

The 6-foot-6 Howard has been a solid player throughout his college career, but this season he has blossomed while leading a talented group of young players. Howard is averaging 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds and ranks among the conference leaders in seven other individual categories.

Not coincidentally, Howard's improvement came after a challenge from his coach. Prosser wanted Howard, the only fourth-year senior on the team, to become a leader. He asked his star player to work harder at practice and set an example by being the first one on the practice court and the last one to leave.

Pain in Howard's lower legs -- the exact injury is uncertain -- prevented him from practicing much in the preseason and often forces him to seek treatment in the training room before practice. After the final whistle blows, though, Howard almost always grabs a ball to work on his dribbling or shooting. His younger teammates have taken notice.

"He has a pretty good IQ for the game and he picks things up," Prosser said, explaining Howard's newfound patience for scouting reports and practice walk-throughs. "But in the past, it looked like he thought we were going over it ad nauseam."

Outwardly, Howard appears a pretty easy read; he is one of the more outspoken players in the conference. He also has earned a reputation for being one of the tougher players in the league, a trait that sometimes results in on-court confrontations.

"I guess that comes from not backing down from anybody," Howard said. "If they do something to me, I'm going to come back after them even harder. It's just a part of being competitive."

Howard has needed to be tough from the start. His was a difficult birth, one that resulted in curved legs as an infant. Doctors waited three months to see if the problem would heal naturally, then decided the only way to make sure Howard would walk normally was to break both of his legs, reset the bones in proper position, then place them in casts for three months.

"I'm blessed to be able to walk," Howard said. "I was supposed to walk with a [limp]."

Now, Howard's only reminder of the procedure is that his feet occasionally point inward when he runs. Just a little pigeon-toe, he said, adding that it has no effect on his play.

As he grew up, Howard was like many other kids in the state when it came to choosing a favorite basketball team: He rooted for the North Carolina Tar Heels or the Duke Blue Devils.

"It was a flip-flop each year," he said, "whoever was the better team."

If Howard identified with any university in his home town, it was Winston-Salem State -- the historically black university's campus was just a 10-minute walk from his house. His aunt was a member of the school's flag corps and the school's football team was successful, Howard remembered.

He reached high school before the hometown Demon Deacons entered the picture. To Howard, the tree-filled campus north of the city might as well have been in another galaxy. Then, on a trip to a pro wrestling event while he was in the ninth grade, Howard discovered Wake Forest. It was there that he met Tim Duncan, then the Demon Deacons' star player, and by association he found out about the school, too.

"It was different," he said of his first visit to Wake Forest's campus. "I never knew a college like that, with kids staying in those dorms. It was just a different experience for me."

Lightly recruited by major programs, Howard wanted to go to Wake Forest, but he was unable to meet the NCAA's academic qualifications to accept an athletic scholarship. So, following the advice of Dave Odom, then Wake Forest's coach, Howard went to Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., for a year.

"It was another world," Howard said. "That helped me out a lot. Before I went to Hargrave, I would go out every weekend. That taught me there is more to life than just partying."

Two days before that Christmas, Howard received an early present: Odom offered him a scholarship. A few more visits to Wake Forest and the year of prep school, however, did not make the transition to college life any easier.

"It was a culture shock," he said. "I wasn't used to being around white people like that. It was something new for me."

On weekends, he often would go back to the south side of town to hang around with old friends or visit Winston-Salem State.

"My first year, I never went to any parties on campus," Howard said. "My sophomore year, I started opening up, realizing there was more to do than going over to my friends' houses. I've got another life right here."

While adapting to his new school took some time, Howard was successful from the start on the basketball court. He started all but two games as a freshman, averaging 9.3 points. As a sophomore, he averaged 13.6 points and was second-team all-ACC. A badly sprained ankle limited Howard over the final six weeks last season when he averaged 13.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. He was selected third-team all-ACC, but decided against entering the NBA draft.

If not for the ankle injury, Howard said, "I would have probably tried to leave. No telling where I would have been. This injury happened for a reason. It helped me grow a lot. It had to happen for a reason. In a way, I'm glad it happened. But in a way, I wonder what would have happened if I didn't get hurt."

At a time when many top players are leaving college after one or two seasons to turn professional, there sometimes is a stigma attached to those who do stay in school. They aren't good enough, the thought goes, otherwise they, too, would have left. Howard, though, said he pays no attention.

"One more year of college life -- it's the best life you can have," he said. "I'm enjoying it."

Note: Maryland athletic department officials are asking season ticket holders who decide not to attend tonight's game because of the weather to donate their tickets to the school for re-sale. For more information, call 800-462-8377.

As a child, Josh Howard wondered if he would ever walk normally. Now, the Demon Deacon is called ACC's best.Senior Josh Howard, left, has helped No. 15 Wake Forest to first place in the ACC. "He's the best player in our league," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.