Beauty of the Beast

Before Game 4 this past Monday, a reporter asked Jameer Nelson if all of this–the perfect postseason record, the blowouts of Atlanta and Charlotte–would be possible without a superstar on the team. Meer’s response? “Is it possible without Dwight?!? No. None of this would be possible without Dwight,” laughed Nelson. With that in mind, here’s a feature from SLAM 105 that focused on a Dwight Howard who was just beginning to climb the ladder of excellence.–Ed.

SLAM 105 Feature: Dwight Howard.

by Jake Appleman

Shirtless, shoeless Dwight Howard trots through the bowels of the TD Banknorth Garden, leaving a horde of screaming Bostonians in his wake. He makes a quick left and walks down the main corridor.

“Did you give those away?” someone asks out loud, referring to Howard’s lack of jersey and kicks.

“Yessir,” Howard responds in stride, his typical polite self.

After Dwight turns left into the visitors’ locker room, the unknown guy turns to somebody else and offers up one of the generic compliments that typically define upstanding young men like Howard, something along the lines of, “He’s such a good kid!”—admittedly not exactly the web’s home for “good kids”—defines the most acceptable use of the word beasting as “The act of beasting; to act in a beast-like manner; to act aggressively.” While the word has many different connotations, when discussing aggressive athletes its primary meaning is often overused. Hella overused.

I’m sorry, but Earl Boykins, regardless of how well he plays, cannot “beast.” That would be like describing a dangerous situation to Charlie Villanueva as “hairy.” It just doesn’t work. Point being, the new-school vernacular, as it relates to sports, never struck the right chord with me…until I saw Dwight Howard play. And then it clicked. Howard, who will finally be able to legally buy a brew right around the time this issue goes to press, gobbles up rebounds like supermodels vomit: by combining relentless, unparalleled skill with the perfect body type. More to the point, survival under the boards is Darwinian, and Dwight Howard is the fittest, leading the League with 14.1 boards per through the first 11 games of the season.

For added perspective, let’s look at how Howard immediately goes to work on this November night. On Orlando’s first possession, Paul Pierce swipes the ball away from DH. Instead of sulking, Howard immediately atones by blocking Kendrick Perkins’ shot at the other end. Seconds later, Ryan Gomes picks up his first foul because he can’t contain Howard on a box-out. Another 30 ticks later and Howard grabs his first defensive board of the night. He whips an outlet pass and the Magic break quickly, as Jameer Nelson finds Grant Hill for an and-one. Gomes, an emerging key for this young Celtics team, picks up his second foul with 10:30 left in the first quarter.

A minute later, Perkins bricks the second of two free throws and the man-child grabs the board. The Magic quickly head the other way, and Nelson finds Howard for an uncontested two-handed flush. At the 8:37 mark, Dwight drives on Gomes’ replacement, Brian Scalabrine, who has no choice but to foul him. On Boston’s next possession, Howard swats a Pierce layup. Perkins grabs the blocked shot and is fouled by Tony Battie, but KP misses both FTs and Dwight grabs another board. Two possessions go by, and Scalabrine picks up his second foul trying to contain Howard, who runs the floor like a guard, leaving Scalabrine no choice. Again.

It’s apropos that Scalabrine exits after struggling against the young behemoth. It was only an hour earlier when the chatty redhead said, “He has a knack for making the big plays. He just goes up and gets a rebound, and he’s two feet above the rim, way up there. Once he gets to the point where he makes those plays—the faceup Tim Duncan jumper—the whole League is gonna be scared of him.”

Friendly giant that he is, Howard admits that he didn’t mean to foul two guys out in the time it takes most people to boil water. “Oh no, it just happened,” he says innocently. “I wasn’t really thinking about it. I knew if I had a smaller guy like Scalabrine or Gomes to go right away. I mean, I didn’t mean to. It just happened.”

Four minutes of actual game time have passed. Thanks to Al Jefferson’s appendectomy, the Celtics are down to their fourth option, Leon Powe, who makes his NBA debut and immediately asserts his will on the game. (Dwight is busy sticking the massive Perkins, while Darko Milicic struggles with Powe.) Interestingly, Leon might never have seen action if DH wasn’t such an impossible cover. After the game, I ask Dwight if Powe, the Boston media’s “silver lining” in his debut, should send him a fruit basket.

“Oh, shhh…man,” Howard counters, almost as if it was not appropriate to make light of the situation. Typical Dwight Howard. He’s such a good kid. His gargantuan presence inadvertently helps a rookie get his career off to a great start, and he chooses to praise the rook. “He played great. We didn’t really discuss him much. Next time we’ll look out for him.”

While Powe will have to scrap for everything he gets in the League, Howard is well on his way to being a perennial superstar. And his teammates are ecstatic to be a part of his blindingly bright future. “He’s one of the best young players in the League, so it’s always fun,” Keyon Dooling notes. “We can see improvement in his game from last year to this year. Every night and every day in practice he does something spectacular.”

Battie, Howard’s partner under the boards, takes it a step further. “He’s an asshole,” Battie jokes, before arriving at his real point. “His game is mature. He should be an All-Star this year, one of the elite big men. When you run down the list: Shaq, Duncan, maybe Yao; you’ve gotta throw Dwight in there with those guys.”

Howard acknowledges that the feeling is mutual. When asked what the biggest difference is between this year and last year, he extols the virtues of his teammates and alludes to the camaraderie they’ve been able to develop by sticking together. “That’s the best thing that can happen for me—that we’ve got the same nucleus of guys still here,” he says matter-of-factly.

Howard finishes his night in Boston with a manly 17 and 15—right around his averages for the first month of the season—en route to an impressive W, but what’s also striking is how his teammates perform around him. Grant Hill (knock on wood) is currently turning back the clock, and Jameer Nelson does a fantastic job of utilizing Howard’s presence. In Boston, Howard floats around the court like Nelson’s screen and roll shadow. “When I set a pick for him, sometimes the big helps and that leaves me wide open,” Howard says. “And a lotta people don’t wanna see me dunking, so they stay with me and leave him—and he’s going to hit that shot.” Nelson stars in the victory, finishing with 24 and 7, shooting 11 of 17 from the floor.

With such an effective group around him, Howard is able to concentrate on his greatest strength: his rebounding. “I just try and focus on wherever the balls are coming off and try to get there,” he says. Looking for a bit more detail, we ask Orlando coach Brian Hill to expound. “Obviously, his greatest asset for us is his ability to rebound the basketball,” Hill says. “He’s learning how to become more of a factor now, changing and blocking shots inside. He’s just getting better and better with the experience. He’s come a long way.”

Marked improvement aside, there’s still much work to be done. Backup guard Travis Diener adds some good perspective: “When teams double team him, he’s got to continue to get better at passing out of a double team, and even scoring sometimes through a double team. Teams are going to come after him now…He’s gotta find a way to get through that, pass the ball, then re-post, and get the ball back and score that way.”

Howard also recognizes that he needs to expand his offensive game in order to keep improving. “Posting up is one of my strengths, but I need to keep working on my jump shot and develop more confidence in it where I can shoot more than one a game. I think by doing that, that’ll just open up the floor.”

Not only is Howard cognizant of his own limitations and how he must improve, he’s smart enough to understand that he must stay true to his team’s needs. “One thing that Coach Hill talked to me a lot about is that if I’m out shooting jump shots, who’s going to rebound? Who’s going to be down low?’’ Howard asks. “We have the guys to shoot jump shots. He says, ‘If you’re down in the paint dominating, that’s what we need, that’s what’s going to help us win.’”

And winning is important for the Orlando Magic this year. They sprinted out to a 7-4 start, buoyed by the stellar play of Howard, Hill and Nelson, the veteran leadership of Battie and Hedo Turkoglu, and a very deep bench (Keyon Dooling, Carlos Arroyo,Keith Bogans, the uber-athletic Trevor Ariza, Travis Diener and a (finally) fully free Darko Milicic). Anything less than a trip to the postseason will be seen as a major disappointment in O-town.

Much has been made of Howard’s commitment to his religion, but piety doesn’t get in the way of a versatile, engaging personality. He walks around with a bright, endearing smile and entertains reporters with Borat impersonations (“In my country they go crazy for you,” Howard imitates, pointing at a female reporter. Then, looking at an out-of-shape beat writer, “but not so much for you.”)

And the praise continues to flow like the constant movement in the Magic’s offense when Howard’s solitary presence roams the paint.

“He makes work a lot easier. Incredible talent, huh?”—Arroyo, translated from Spanish

“The only guy I’ve seen with a frame like that is David Robinson.”—Scalabrine

“It’s kinda like watching Shaq, ya know?”—Diener

So he draws plaudits from fellow pros in multiple languages, has David Robinson’s body and Shaq’s ability to dominate inside in an era defined by a dearth of old-school pivots. Afraid yet?

“In order to be one of the best—and I wanna be one of the greatest players to play the game—you know, I gotta work at it, keep working, and keep working.”

Back in high school, Dwight told SLAM he wanted to be a beast. So, we’ll ask him the same question a million kids ask their parents on the way to Orlando every year: Are we there yet?

“Nah, not yet,” he says. “I think I got a long way to go. I’m still working on my game.”

Typical Dwight Howard. He’s such a good kid, such a Mickey Mouse hero. The gallant young Prince of the Magic kingdom.

SLAM 105 feature: Dwight Howard