In every NBA season, a new star seems to secure a spot among the league's supernovas. Last season, Miami's Dwyane Wade and Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire both made the quantum leap from good to great as they became first-time all-stars and second-team all-NBA selections.
As the NBA's 60th season begins today, who's got next? Who is waiting in the wings to break out? To many around the league, that player resides in the neighborhood Shaquille O'Neal once claimed in Central Florida, has the tools to dominate and possesses a winning smile -- especially now that his braces have been removed.
That player is Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic.
The 19-year-old was picked by 47 percent of the league's general managers (14 of 30) as the player most likely to have a breakout season this year, according to a survey conducted by NBA.com.
"Last year, a lot of people who are in the basketball world said, 'Oh, my God!' This kid has got great talent. I can see so much upside with this kid. I see flashes, and if he can do this more consistently and learn the game . . . I just think the league said, 'This could be a big year for him,' " a Western Conference scout said, on condition of anonymity.
The last high school player selected No. 1 overall, Howard is proof that the big show isn't always too much, too soon for a teenager. In his first season in Orlando, Howard became the first player plucked from his prom to start all 82 games, leading the Magic in rebounding and blocked shots.
And through it all, Howard is still just a kid enjoying the ride. In a rush to get to a haircut one recent afternoon, Howard stopped to sign autographs and talk to a couple of fans outside TD Waterhouse Centre. While waiting for his barber to trim his faint mustache and line up the peach fuzz on his chin, Howard couldn't contain himself when one of his favorite videos came on television. "This is my song, right here," Howard said. Howard rocked the barber's chair left to right, leaned back and extended his left arm to snap his finger. "Oh, I think they like me," Howard sang as he bounced in his seat. "Oh, I think they like me."
Howard wasn't necessarily singing about himself, but people around the league certainly have a favorable opinion of the 6-foot-11, 265-pounder. To some, Howard's freakish athleticism and incredible physical gifts give him the foundation to dominate for years to come. New York Knicks Coach Larry Brown has likened him to O'Neal. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, who popularized the preps-to-pros movement, has likened Howard to himself.
"He's a beast," Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I mean the guy is unbelievable. He's already one of the best rebounders in the NBA. He's right at the top, with anybody. He'll block shots. He's quick as hell. That guy is going to cause us all nightmares for a lot of years in this league. Personally, I don't even like playing against him now, and I'm really not going to like it in three or four more years."
Howard finished third in voting for rookie of the year last season behind Charlotte's Emeka Okafor and Chicago's Ben Gordon, but few are questioning former Magic general manager John Weisbrod's decision to select the future of Howard over the present of Okafor. "He is so much better than Emeka Okafor, it's not even close," the same scout said. "I think by far, [the Magic] got the better of the two. I think he's going to be a fantastic, monster of a low-post player. His shoulders are wide and thick and he's long. . . . I don't have one worry about him being an elite player."
Howard also has high expectations, but tries to keep things in perspective. "I want to be the best basketball player, and I'm going to keep working at it every day. God has blessed me with a lot of talent. I have to use it the right way."
Magic President Bob Vander Weide compares the level of excitement in the organization to when the team drafted O'Neal with the top pick 13 years ago.
"You'd have a hard time selling me on anyone else to build around at 19 years old. He's the staple that as we look out, five, six, seven, eight years, it's going to be about Dwight Howard. He's going to be part Kevin Garnett, part David Robinson and part whatever, but Dwight is going to be Dwight," he said. "I was there when we drafted Shaq, and we had a nice four- or five-year run. The difference is Shaq had a couple of years of college. . . . The physical presence is there [with Howard], but obviously not the physical dominance. When Shaq came to us, he was 305, 310 pounds. When we got Dwight, he was 242. Again, he started a little younger, so we can take a little more time to get to that dominance."
Howard also has impressed observers with his work ethic (Magic officials often have had to beg him to leave the gym), his morality (the team has not had reason to worry about the deeply religious Howard), his maturity (he recently bought a house just five minutes from Shaquille O'Neal's place in suburban Orlando) and his attitude (he humbly accepts criticism).
A self-described "goofball," Howard likes to practice new dance moves or crack jokes in the locker room. He playfully refers to 34-year-old Magic forward Bo Outlaw as "Daddy." When someone told him that no photographers were able to capture his monstrous dunk over Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning during a recent preseason game, Howard shot back with a charming retort: "Uh-huh. I saw the flash."
"He has balance," Magic assistant general manager Otis Smith said of Howard. "He enjoys basketball as much as he enjoys life. I've never seen the kid have a bad day."
After a recent practice, Howard left the locker room wearing a white, sleeveless undershirt. Magic public relations director Joel Glass grabbed Howard's shirt and reminded him that the NBA's new dress code will soon forbid such clothing. Howard rolled his eyes and apologized. "I be forgetting sometimes," Howard said, before flashing a gigantic grin. "You know I've been working out. I just want everybody to see my muscles."
Glass lowered his head to chuckle, and then patted Howard on the belly. "Everything is funny to" Howard, Magic reserve guard Keyon Dooling said. "He always has a smile on his face. I think sometimes he's not smiling, though. He's just got big teeth and gums. I don't know if he can close his mouth all the way. But we'll call it a smile."
As a rookie, Howard had surprising success in his first season, averaging double digits in rebounds (10) and points (12) without having many plays called for him. He also finished stronger than he started, despite never playing more than 34 games at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. In the final 19 games of the regular season, Howard averaged 16.4 points and 10.4 rebounds.
Now that Grant Hill will miss the first part of the season with a sports hernia, many feel that it isn't outside of the realm of possibility for Howard to average at least 17 points and 12 rebounds in his second season. "Oh yeah, he can definitely do that," one Eastern Conference general manager said.
Orlando is expecting more. "We've got a lot riding on a 19-year-old. The better he is, the better our team is," Smith said. "He is primed to have a good year. He's poised to have a 20[-point], 10[-rebound] year. He will get the ball. That's a given."
Magic Coach Brian Hill, back for his second stint with the team, said Howard will be "a central figure in what we do offensively," but added that the offense will be built primarily around the talents of all-stars Steve Francis and Grant Hill. Howard hasn't developed a reliable offensive move or a back-to-the-basket game and often looks to finish every touch with a jackhammer dunk. And his teammates don't trust yet him to produce consistently. "It's not like it was when Shaquille was here and you knew he was going to get 40 touches in the post every night," said Brian Hill, who rode O'Neal to the NBA Finals in 1995. "There is a different makeup to this team."
Hill stresses patience with Howard. "My hope is just that the expectations aren't too high," he said. "I know he wants to fulfill it and I know he will. He has the desire to learn and be a great player and the willingness to be a great player, but we just need give him time to learn and to continue to grow."
Howard said his coat-hanger shoulders are broad enough to handle the expectations. "A lot is expected for me to be the low-post presence for the team, to be the enforcer on both ends of the court. They call me 'Young Thundercat,' so I've got to live up to that nickname," said Howard, who turns 20 in December.
Howard doesn't have to search far for motivation. His father, Dwight Sr., said Howard isn't close to showing the desire needed to be a truly dominant force in the league. "If I would count between 1 and 10, that passion I think he has, I would say 61/2 right now. I'd like to see him at a 71/2 or 8," Dwight Sr. said. "We're on second base. We're not there yet, but we're rolling."
"His goal is to be not one of the great ones, but the great one," Smith said.
Howard likely will have fun trying to get there. "He could play in this league 20 to 21 years," Francis said. "He's the type of guy, for us older guys, he keeps us young."