Tuesday, December 19, 2006 Updated: December 26, 12:17 PM ET
No ceiling in sight
By Eric Neel Page 2
The kid ate them up. I sat courtside for the Magic-Sonics game in Seattle a couple of weeks back and watched it happen. He took balls a clean foot above the rim. He worked quick reverse-pivot moves for little banks. He ran the break and sent guys scurrying with alley-oop dunks. He blocked four shots and changed another eight. He was a perfect 8-for-8 from the floor. He bounced like Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood and muscled the post like Shaq did once upon a time in Orlando.
Stay out of Dwight Howard's way when he has a full head on steam on the way to the rack.
It was a spyglass night. A revelation. I was looking at Dwight Howard, but I was seeing the future.
"You think he knows how good he is?" I asked a friend sitting next to me. "You think he has any idea how good he can be?"
He's just a baby, barely 21, so maybe he doesn't realize it. He's quiet and unassuming, so maybe it hasn't occurred to him. He has all the respect in the world for the esteemed Mr. Grant Hill, so perhaps he defers.
But if it's starting to dawn on him if, at 17.1 points and 12.7 rebounds a night, Dwight Howard is getting an inkling, the league had better look out. Because with all the ink we've been spilling on LeBron, Carmelo and Dwyane Wade, this is the guy who can truly dominate. This is the guy who can shred the scenery. This is the unstoppable force. This is the man.
Remember that feeling you had watching the young David Robinson and the young Hakeem Olajuwon that lithe sense that they were capable of anything? That's how watching Howard feels. He's active on every ball off the rim or the glass (a third of his rebounds every night are on the offensive boards), and it isn't just a spring thing. He's eyeballing it while it's still in the shooter's hands, gauging spin and angle on a possible miss. He doesn't tire or take plays off. It's the same deal on offense: quick feet to the spot, a broad-shouldered call for the entry pass, and an aggressive turn, left or right, toward the hole. He's chockablock explosive. He dunks and boards and blocks with equal pop, and can't nobody slow him down.
Along press row, he's all anyone's watching. Guys are shaking their heads, rolling their eyes and whistling as if they'd just seen a cherry Corvette roll down Main Street.
There's work to do. He turns the ball over too often, struggles with the double from time to time and needs a go-to post move or three. He finds his offense in the gaps, off the glass or on a cut. The Magic aren't running the offense through him (he scores his 17 a game on just 10 or 11 shots; Robinson and Olajuwon were averaging 16 and 18 attempts per game in their third seasons in the league, though both were older and had four years of college experience each) and with steady production out of Hill, Orlando probably shouldn't be. It's too early. Howard's too raw.
But even without a completely reliable move down low, he's growing. His points per 40 have climbed steadily through 2½ seasons, from 14.7 to 17.1 to 19 so far this season. Beyond the numbers, you can see the development in his look, in the quick confident smile he flashes after busting by somebody on his way to the basket, or after turning away somebody's shot like it's nothing but a thing. There's a lot of talk about Howard's being too timid, or too polite, about his maybe lacking a necessary mean streak. But don't mistake that for a lack of swagger, because the kid I saw the other night is feeling it. He may not trust it every trip yet, and he most definitely needs to test it in some playoff fire walks, but it's in there.
Howard's defensive grit is as impressive as his offensive power.
He needs to know that. He needs to believe it. Because I want more of it.
Right now, on the cusp between his truckload of talent and drive and the prospect of true greatness, he's the most captivating player in the league for me, bar none.
Playmakers like James and Wade inspire me, make me want to move, remind me why I love basketball. But Howard's thing is some other thing, some tremble-before-me, shock-and-awe sort of thing. He could own this league if he keeps working it. He looks like he has no ceiling. He's going to get stronger physically, and he's going to get bolder. At some point real soon, he's going to be a straight-out unsolvable problem for every team he faces. I see a 10-year run as the East's All-Star center. I see trophies and rings. I see a plaque in the Hall. Am I getting ahead of myself? Screw it. That's how good he looks to me. He looks like I should get ahead of myself just to keep pace.
I look at a player like Howard, someone with work to do but with clear, unmistakably scary potential, and I can't help but want more. I picture the jump hook he doesn't quite have yet and envision the up-and-under fake he doesn't yet use to make grown men cry.
Does he see it too? Does he know it's out there for him? I don't know. But I can't take my eyes off him while waiting to find out.
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com and Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.