Editor's note: This article appears in the February 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
There must be something Dwight Howard is afraid of, but the search continues. Follow in the disastrous footsteps of Kwame Brown as a straight-from-high-school No. 1 pick? Gladly. Step into the legendary shoes of Shaquille O'Neal by switching from power forward to center for the Orlando Magic? No problem. Live up to hype that he is the perfect storm of prestigious big men? Doesn't even make him flinch. Howard's rim-bending dunks draw comparisons to vintage Shaq, and his bubbled biceps and long stride conjure up images of David Robinson. His kiss-the-rim hops and prodigious rebounding are classic Kevin Garnett; his post-swat primal screams are pure Alonzo Mourning.
It's nice company. But of course, those guys are yesterday, and Dwight Howard is NEXT.
To be anointed the "future" of your position, much less your sport, you need more than stats; you need magnetism, and the 21-year-old Howard has it in buckets. Yes, he's a double-double machine, and yes, he's the youngest player in league history to rack up 20 points and 20 rebounds in a single game (he's done it six times now, four this season), but he also has the most contagious smile in the NBA. It's a cartoonish grin so wide and so toothy that you almost forget his job is to run the floor and intimidate. In the rare moments when he's not scoring (17.1 ppg), rebounding (12.3 rpg) or blocking shots (1.9 bpg), it's the big grin that keeps you watching. "He might be the silliest guy in the league," says Magic GM Otis Smith.
Makes sense, then, that Howard's two nicknames are Thunder, for his tenacity on the court, and Sho'nuff (a goofball character in the martial arts spoof The Last Dragon), for his big-kid persona. It also makes sense that Shaq, the last Orlando big man to possess both of those qualities, recently annointed Howard one of the NBA's next dominant big men.
Heady stuff for a guy who three years ago was in Atlanta prepping for his high school prom. But the pitfalls that most often prevent young, talented athletes from realizing their potential -- ego, greed, shortsighted friends or family -- are not threats to Howard. For all his outrageous talent, he remains a devout Christian, a dedicated son, a caring teammate. He carries a Bible on the road and is a mainstay at pregame chapel. He consults his father, a Georgia state trooper, and his mother, a school teacher, on any major purchase or decision. Catch him headed for the weight room, and he'll have a half-dozen Gatorade bottles with him, offering them to anyone he sees.
Having played sparingly as a rookie and then strictly as a complementary player last season, Howard still has a lot to learn before he understands the game the way the aforementioned legendary big men do, but his stint with Team USA in last summer's World Championship clearly advanced the learning curve. He was a long shot to make the team when it convened for tryouts, yet he wound up the bronze-medal-winning squad's best big man, starting five of nine games and finishing second only to LeBron James in rebounds (41 to 43) despite playing 97 fewer minutes.
While Howard's unfamiliarity with the international game was apparent, his dominating practices against stars like LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Elton Brand showed him just how high in the NBA constellation he had risen. "I saw it all summer," says Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich. "He's a freak of nature."
And while there are plenty such "freaks" in the NBA, Howard has chosen to carve out his place as something more rare: a bona fide center. Anti-center sentiment has been growing ever since Garnett resisted the "C" label because it had come to represent lumbering behemoths limited to wrestling underneath for rebounds, setting screens and launching jump hooks. Being a power forward like Charles Barkley, shooting threes, taking guys off the dribble and dunking seemed like a lot more fun. Some teams don't even list pure centers on their rosters anymore. Rule changes have put small ball in vogue and inspired lineups that feature a power forward (Tim Duncan, Rasheed Wallace) as the lone big man on the floor.
Quick, long, agile. That seems to be the template for big men in the lickety-split NBA these days, and Howard fits the bill. He can run the floor with ease and shoot from the perimeter. So it was no surprise that, when he arrived in Orlando as the first overall pick of the 2004 draft, he expected the Magic to use him as a KG, not a Diesel. But Smith had other plans. He wanted that 7'6" wingspan and chiseled 265 pounds under the rim. So Howard went to work -- not just redefining the center position, but bringing it back from the dead, with the potential to combine KG's range and Shaq's low-post power.
"Dwight calling himself a 5 might seem like a little thing, but it's big because he's accepted all that comes with it," Smith says. "He is going to define what the future big man looks like."
The perfect storm, perhaps?
"When he got here, I told him to stop wanting to be the next KG," forward Pat Garrity says. "Look around. There are already people who want to be the next you!' "
Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.