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NBA

Teen may set theme for Magic's season

After a solid rookie season, forward Dwight Howard is ready to be the team's go-to guy.

By VINCENT THOMAS
Published November 2, 2005

The Magic locker room was practically empty. Minutes earlier, Orlando had beaten the Atlanta Hawks 105-100 in an exhibition game, and before you could say Hedo Turkoglu, the players were gone.

Tony Battie was one of the few left. He headed to the showers, where Dwight Howard was belting out an old gospel-soul classic.

"Lean on me, when you're not strong. And, I'll be your friend. I'll help you caaarrry on."

It didn't sound as earnest or soulful as when Bill Withers sang it, but he wasn't bad.

Howard has had some practice. He grew up in the church, a choir boy in deeds and because he sang in one. He's also a second-year, not-yet-20 NBA superstar in the making, a 6-foot-11 power forward with a developing game that has general managers and scouts drooling.

Howard and the Magic begin their season today, at home against the Indiana Pacers. With Howard setting team goals like "more than 50 wins" and "getting out of the first round of the playoffs," that song he was singing might end up being more than a playful shower tune.

Even before the Magic got news that frequently injured Grant Hill would miss the early season with an abdominal strain, Howard knew more was going to be expected of him.

"God didn't give me these big shoulders for nothing," he said.

Howard has gained close to 20 pounds since the 2004 NBA draft, and his game is starting to show nuances and skill - not just energy, athleticism and raw talent.

After the Hawks game, Magic coach Brian Hill said he thought Howard was "making good reads" on offense and defense. That means a crisp defensive rotation this season where he might have gotten lost last season.

He's kicking the ball out on a double team these days, when last season he might have bulled into the paint for an offensive foul. And with his new physique, he's the one doing the pushing and shoving.

Atlanta's Josh Smith, Howard's childhood buddy, watched Howard play as kids, as AAU teammates and now as professional opponents.

"Dwight was an animal back in the day and he's an animal now," Smith said. "To me, there's no doubt he can help carry the Magic."

Last week, Shaquille O'Neal was on his mind. The new-model Miami Heat with its talent-drenched roster was rolling through Orlando for the Magic's preseason finale. A few years back, O'Neal started calling himself Big Diesel, slang for muscular. At some point last week, Howard had taken to calling himself Lil' Diesel.

"Because I'm trying to get diesel," he told reporters. Then he flexed.

O'Neal's response?

"I'm a shogun. In order to get to the shogun, you have to go through a lot of ninjas," said O'Neal, dropping yet another gem of an analogy.

"He's got the potential to be a good player, but there are a lot of ninjas out there: Stoudemire, Garnett, Ming ...

"Once you go through all the ninjas, then you will be able to face the shogun."

The Magic begins the season with many questions. Will Brian Hill's return be a success? Will Grant Hill's health hold up? What role will Steve Francis play, playmaker or scorer?

But perhaps most important: Will Dwight Howard make The Leap? That would involve building on an exceptional rookie season and becoming an outright force.

The Magic's 2004-05 season herked and jerked. There was a big preseason trade, a big midseason trade and a coaching change with less than half the season left. Through it all, Howard was stable. His numbers - 12 points, 10 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 33 minutes - ranked as one of the best rookie seasons for any big man, especially an 18-year-old.

The talk from analysts and insiders this off-season has been about an increased role in the offense for Howard. With Brian Hill at the helm, Howard is supposed to see the ball more in Orlando's perimeter-oriented offense. But the Magic isn't quite ready to fully morph into an inside-out squad.

"We have two All-Stars on this team in Steve Francis and Grant Hill," said Brian Hill, answering whether he believes Howard is ready to become Orlando's first option on offense.

"Dwight is still learning. He has a lot of potential and he can do a lot of things. But we still have two All-Stars. That's the way I look at it."

Ask Howard his role and he'll offer several variations of the same answer: "defense, running the floor and rebounding."

As much as Hill would like to let Howard's development take its natural course, Grant Hill's injury might mean more Howard sooner than expected. Brian Hill said Grant Hill's injury gives other players an opportunity to step in and step up, to "pick up the slack." "Oh, I think Lil' Diesel right here will step up," Howard said, grinning.

Vincent Thomas can be reached at vthomas@sptimes.com or 352 424-0177.

[Last modified November 2, 2005, 00:47:16]


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