Howard's no Shemp

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:24 AM ET

NBA fans are beginning to see the Dwight.

Orlando Magic forward Dwight Howard, that is. If you have heard the name but don't know much about him, you're not alone.

And isn't that a little weird?

A year ago, the basketball world was agog over LeBron James, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. He had joined the Cleveland Cavaliers directly out of high school and a rare combination of talent, attitude and public fascination made him arguably the most hyped rookie in NBA history.

True, arguments regarding the most-hyped-rookie crown could be made for Wilt Chamberlain in 1959 and Magic Johnson in 1979, among others. But back in the old days there was a lot less media to get people whipped into a frenzy.

Fast forward to 2004. Howard, the Atlanta high-schooler who was the No. 1 pick in the draft last June, joined the Magic directly out of high school, just like James.

Like James, Howard is a physical freak, a bundle of energy and athleticism. And yet, as Howard entered the NBA, he received about 1% of the hype James received, and even that might be mathematically generous.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that James is a 6-foot-8 swingman, physically cut from the same mold as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter. Fans always have a special fascination for guys like that. For example, Bryant regularly got louder cheers from the Los Angeles crowd than 7-foot-1 centre Shaquille O'Neal when the two were teammates with the Lakers.

Howard is a 6-foot-11 power forward, and at this early stage of his career, rebounding is his calling card. Rebounds don't usually ignite crowds the way dunks or three-point shots do, but Howard slowly is opening eyes as his Magic has been one of the surprise teams in the league thus far.

And Howard likes to dunk the ball, too, in case you hadn't noticed on the nightly highlights.

"Dunking the ball gets me excited," reasoned Howard, with all the innocence of youth.

True, it's convenient for Howard that he landed in Orlando in the same year the injury-plagued Grant Hill came out of virtual retirement. And point guard Steve Francis, who was transferred from Houston in the Tracy McGrady deal, has the Magic playing an entertaining, up-tempo style.

But Howard is doing his share. Heading into the Magic's home game against the Boston Celtics last night, the 18-year-old Howard was eighth in the NBA in rebounding, averaging 10.7 per game. He almost was averaging a double-double, too, when you factor in his 9.3 points per game.

Howard, who has started every game for the Magic, also ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game (3.8), and seventh in field-goal percentage (.539). He had double-digit rebounding totals in his first nine games, falling just shy of the rookie record of 12 set by O'Neal.

It all has added up to an 8-4 record before last night for an Orlando team that won only 21 games last season.

"(Howard) hasn't been in awe or intimidated by anyone we've played this season," Magic coach Johnny Davis said recently. "He's not in the shallow end anymore. He's in the deep water with the big boys, and he's making great progress."

Toronto fans will get their first look at Howard tomorrow night, when the Magic plays host to the Raptors.

Prepare to be impressed.

JAMES AT 19

Please note that while we're suggesting Howard deserves more hype than he's receiving, that's not to say James does not deserve the hype he already has received. Heading into Cleveland's game in L.A. against the Clippers last night, the 19-year-old James was averaging 26.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game for the 9-4 Cavs.

James has become the youngest player to score 2,000 points.

"I didn't even notice, because it came so quickly," he said.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN

There, we managed to get through an entire basketball-related column without mentioning Ron Artest and the brawl in Detroit, and ... uh ... Damn! We were so close!

SISTERLY LOVE

Here's a great quote from Amy Hall, who a couple of years ago received a life-saving kidney transplant from her brother, Sacramento Kings centre Greg Ostertag: "Look, we're really close, but remind the people in Sacramento that I'm much better looking, I don't have his big (butt) and I'm a lot smarter," Hall told The Sacramento Bee. "And I love my Ford dual-cab truck just as much as Greg loves his, only mine isn't a diesel and I don't have a gun rack or mudflaps."

CHRISTIAN ATTITUDE

Another great quote, from Miami Heat centre Shaquille O'Neal, who always has had more reasons to dislike Christian Laettner than to like him until this season, in which they are teammates. "It's good to see that enemies can become friends because I used to hate Christian Laettner," O'Neal said. "College thing, NBA thing. But now that we're teammates we have to learn to like each other. Somewhat."

HIVE OF INACTIVITY

The Hornets left Charlotte after the 2001-02 season, during which the club averaged a franchise low of 11,286 fans per game. The club had attracted more than 24,000 fans per game in 1995-96 and 1996-97, the end of a streak that saw Charlotte lead the NBA in attendance eight times in nine years. So how are the expansion Charlotte Bobcats doing? Through seven home dates, they have drawn an average of 15,539.


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