A rejuvenated Dwight Howard has sparked Atlanta Hawks to fast start

During first eight games of homecoming, center has displayed All-Star form

There was another time like this in his life, many years and rebounds ago, when he felt this free and unburdened. He could smile and no one would reach the conclusion that the pearly whites meant he didn’t care and wasn’t being competitive enough. It was all so innocent back in the day. He could be himself and just play basketball.

It’s interesting, then, how Dwight Howard at age 30 looks or at least feels like Dwight Howard at 18, except for the added weight. The two have one thing in common: Atlanta. The teenaged Dwight grew up in the city, played ball and had fun. The adult Dwight, who now represents the Atlanta Hawks, is playing ball and having fun.

Well, the boy and the man actually share something else: Lots of good performances, even dominance at times, and winning.

You might say Howard has rejuvenated the Hawks by giving them an inside presence not seen since Dikembe Mutombo, but it’s also correct that the Hawks have rejuvenated him. Saved him, perhaps, from that NBA dumpster that swallows up players prematurely. Howard has a bounce in his step and it shows on the court, where he’s playing at an early pace that could send him to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2014, and has the Hawks near the top in the East.

“Dwight has been tremendous for us, everything we hoped for and expected out of him,” said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Did you give up on the idea of Howard being a top center again? Perhaps, but so did others, and maybe those NBA teams that were cool to the idea of signing him last summer during free agency. That led Howard to return home, where the Hawks craved interior muscle and gave him the chance to play on a team and in a system unlike any he saw previously in his career.

“I’m happy to be here with this team.” he said. “These guys mean the world to me. I like these guys. I haven’t known these guys for that long but just spending time with them and talking with them it gives me joy and a determination to come out every night and play hard for them and this organization.”

These Hawks are fitting Howard like a superman cape did in the 2008 slam dunk contest. The team doesn’t revolve around him, nor should it, at this stage of his career. Just as important, the team isn’t revolving away from him, either. He gets his touches. He’s involved. He’s made to feel important and wanted. He’s respected.

And maybe that’s all Howard ever wanted.

Howard craves acceptance, like we all, but maybe more in his case, given his sensitivity. He didn’t have faith in Stan Van Gundy near the end of their relationship in Orlando. He got the cold shoulder and cold stare from Kobe Bryant in LA. He was frozen out by ball-dominating James Harden in Houston. In each case, Van Gundy and Kobe and Harden weren’t totally to blame. Howard played a role in why those didn’t work, too. But that’s why this latest stop seems different. Howard has arrived at the right place at the right time.

Paul Millsap, the team’s best player, doesn’t feel compelled to own the locker room or the court. The other Hawks fall in line and do their jobs and fill their roles. The young point guard, Dennis Schroder, tries hard to make a connection with the big man. And Budenholzer, the coach, places few restrictions on Howard in the Hawks’ system.

Yes, the basketball season is only a few weeks old, and yet that’s enough of a hint for Howard. The Hawks are 6-2 and fresh off winning in Cleveland and beating the Bulls. Howard is averaging almost 17 points with 12.6 rebounds and a pair of blocks. He’s shooting 62 percent and commanding the paint most nights. It’s working.

“The support I’m getting from everyone is tremendous,” Howard said. “They just give me so much joy away from the game, so when I step on the floor, I’m filled with a lot of energy. The situation we have here, it just feels good.”

Howard’s final year in Orlando was solid, at least on the court. Otherwise, it has been a mixed bag: Injuries, sporadic play and uncomfortable fits managed to define the last four seasons. When he became a free agent last summer, his last team, the Rockets, didn’t make an effort to re-sign him, but by then, everyone knew that a divorce was best for all.

Interestingly enough, Howard never really put Atlanta on his radar previously. He was groomed in the city and developed quickly enough to become the No. 1 overall pick right out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Success came relatively quick in the NBA; for roughly a five-year stretch Howard was the premier big man in basketball and took Orlando the Finals.

The hiccups, you know about: Howard never developed a money offensive move, had a quirky personality that rubbed some teammates and coaches and opponents the wrong way, and soon became an outcast of sorts within the basketball world at large. Maybe it was all a big misunderstanding on everyone’s part. Whatever the case, Howard appeared wounded by it all and became haunted by critics, both the real and the imagined.

“You go through life and you have different situations that make you stronger and a better person,” he said. “Me coming out of high school at 18 there were a lot of things I had to learn on my own and I had to really grow. Unfortunately, my growth process was seen by the whole world. I had a lot of pitfalls and things people saw as failure but I don’t look at my past as something that’s bad. I think my past as molded me for this moment.”

And this moment is taking place in Atlanta, a coincidence that isn’t lost on him.

“I probably had chances to come back before but I wasn’t in the right place and the team wasn’t in the place they’re in now,” he said. “Everything happens at the right time. I came here at the right time. Timing is everything.”

The Hawks failed to re-sign Al Horford, who personified the franchise for several years, although that seems less of a worry now. Howard is a far more intimidating presence, especially defensively, than Horford, a power forward trapped at center. Howard outplayed Tristan Thompson by getting 17 rebounds in the victory over the Cavs and the Hawks hope that was a message sent. They still might not be a match for the defending champs — the Cavs skunked the Hawks in two straight post-seasons — but can Atlanta be Cleveland’s biggest challenger in the East? That title is up for grabs.

“Me coming out of high school at 18 there were a lot of things I had to learn on my own and I had to really grow. Unfortunately, my growth process was seen by the whole world.”– Hawks center Dwight Howard

“I try to do whatever I can to be effective for this team,” Howard said. “Being from Atlanta, I’ve always watched the Hawks closely even when I was on other teams. I think the pieces are good. We need to think big.

“Since I’ve been in the NBA, the goal has been the same, to win a championship. You have to put that in your head, that `I am a champion, we are champions.’ That’s my mindset. Put in the work and good things will happen. You have to have that championship attitude every day. Every guy in this locker room has that approach.”

Howard knows that the better he plays, and the more the Hawks win, it can only change people’s minds about a franchise that lacks a title since relocating from St. Louis to Atlanta, and also change minds about him.

“I feel great,” he said. “A lot of the noise has blinded people about me. If you work hard enough the truth will outlive a lie. A lot of things have been said about me and I know they’re not true. This is bigger than myself. It’s about this team and city.”

Actually, it’s about this team, this city and this player, a trifecta that is making basketball fun again for someone who craves it.

“This has been amazing,” said Howard. “Everyone in Atlanta has my back. I feel it when I’m in the arena every night. It just gives me more energy to go out and fight.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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