Denton: Howard Looks to Emulate Duncan

By John Denton
November 22, 2010


SAN ANTONIO – The moment is sure to come on Monday night when Orlando Magic superstar Dwight Howard will take the ball in the post, turn and stare down San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan and deftly kiss a shot off the glass.

And most likely, the two Goliaths and friends from their days together as Adidas pitchmen will share a chuckle all the way down to the other end of the floor.

Still a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday, Howard looks at the likes of the 34-year-old Duncan as a gold standard of centers. The first consensus All-NBA pick in Magic history feels that he is just now about to enter his prime and the face-up bank shot off the glass is just one of many ways that Howard wants to emulate Duncan.

Like Duncan, Howard knows that his legacy will be dependent more so on his championship hardware than any rebounding titles or dunk contests awards. Howard looks at a center like Duncan who is nearing the twilight of his career and knows that now is his time to grab the NBA by the throat and strangle every bit of success out of it as possible.

Criticized at times for his playful nature, Howard turned serious this season as he chases a championship. And he became a student of the low-post game in the offseason, doing more listening than talking, more thinking than laughing. He drilled with Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone on the court, and away from it listened to words of wisdom from seasoned big men like Dikembe Mutombo and Tony Battie.

``(Mutombo) was talking to me about getting the best out of myself now while I’m young and have all of the things that I have,’’ said Howard, whose Magic (9-3) face Duncan and the red-hot Spurs (11-1) Monday night in Texas. ``He wasn’t just talking about jumping, dunking and blocking shots. He was talking about a guy like K.G. (Kevin Garnett), whose best years came when he got to Boston. Even though he’s faced a couple of injuries, he won a title and got to The Finals. I don’t want to say that (Garnett) waited too late … but my window of opportunity is now and I want to take advantage of it. I want to take advantage of all my gifts, and that’s what I have to do.’’

Monday night’s matchup between the Magic and Spurs will pit the two teams with the best records in the Eastern and Western Conferences. Orlando has won eight of 10 and four in a row, including Saturday’s hard-fought 90-86 win in Indiana. And the Spurs are the hottest team in the NBA, having won 10 in a row.

Howard got good practice for Monday’s matchup against Duncan by facing the vastly improved Roy Hibbert on Saturday night. The Magic center had to play through some early foul trouble and a fast start by Hibbert, but Howard dominated the second half and finished predictably with another monster game statistically (25 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots, 11 free throw attempts and three offensive boards).

``In the first half, my foul trouble was stupid, reaching instead of going for blocks, just throwing people out of the way. That’s stuff I shouldn’t be doing,’’ Howard said. ``In the second half, I just tried to beat him (Hibbert) down the court, seal and force him to foul me and send me to the free throw line. He had a good first half. I just didn’t want him to have that same second half.’’

Howard’s noticeable determination and sense of urgency led to him working tirelessly this past summer to greatly expand his game. The mid-range jump shot, an idea borrowed from Duncan, has gotten the lion’s share of the attention, but it’s the other aspects of Howard’s growth that has fueled his improvement. Already, he’s displayed more combination moves and shots off fakes in 12 games than he did last season. And his game now is one more of poise than just simply power.

``He has more variety in his offense, but there’s a lot more of a poise, a calm and a patience in his game,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said of Howard, whose 21.2-point scoring average would be the highest of his career. ``He’s not rushing and forcing things now. There’s been very few times where he’s tried to just bull his way through two guys and tried to get to the rim. He’s much more patient making the play that’s there, taking the shot that’s there and making the pass that’s there. It’s just a much more mature game, I think.’’

And that’s where Duncan comes in. No big man has dominated the game the way Duncan has while taking such a mature and cerebral approach. Duncan is a two-time MVP and a four-time NBA champion, but that seems like almost a lifetime away with Duncan aging and the Los Angeles Lakers grabbing control in the Western Conference.

Duncan’s numbers are down to pedestrian levels by Hall of Famer of his ilk, averaging just 13.7 points and 9.6 rebounds in 29.2 minutes a game. On the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday, Duncan played just 17 minutes and scored only eight points.

Howard sees how Duncan’s game has transformed through the years, and he knows his time is now to make his mark much the way the San Antonio star did while ranking 28th all-time in scoring (20,805 points), 25th in rebounding (11,450) and 11th in blocked shots (2,259).

Howard said he looks at players like Duncan and thinks about his own basketball mortality. And his mission is clear: The time is now before he’s too old to do something about it.

``I think about longevity, but I’ve put in a lot of work already and these legs have a lot of years on them to be just 24,’’ Howard said with a chuckle. ``There is a lot of stuff that I want to do, but I want to start it now instead of waiting until I’m 35 or 40. The time is now, and I have a window of opportunity.

``While I have the opportunity, you want to explore new things,’’ Howard continued. ``I’m more than just a basketball player, so there’s more than me just playing until I’m 40 to get a paycheck. I’ll never play for that reason. But I love the game and I’ll play it until I can’t walk.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com. Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at AskJD@orlandomagic.com.