Howard prepares for national spotlight

Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in the Greater Atlanta December 2003 issue of SchoolSports Magazine (which later became ESPN RISE Magazine). We're taking a look back at high school greats as part of ESPN RISE's Best Baller package.

Envisioning Dwight Howard II looking athletically awkward seems impossible. As far as anyone can remember, the last time it happened was when the Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy senior was a seventh-grader. Racing in a 400-meter dash at a middle school track meet, Howard was wearing sweatpants two or three sizes too big. And after every few strides, he had to slow down to hitch up his britches.

"Everyone in my family is still making fun of me for that one," admits the 6-foot-11, 243-pound center, who is rated the No. 2 overall hoop recruit in the nation by SchoolSports.com, though for all intents and purposes he's No. 1A right beside New York City point guard Sebastian Telfair.

It's no surprise the Howard clan has to dig deep to give the family celebrity a few jabs. The overwhelming talent and accomplishments of the household's middle son are downright dizzying.
Howard, 18, is the best and most breathtaking high school big man to come along since Kevin Garnett almost a decade ago — and that includes straight-to-NBA phenoms like Amare Stoudemire, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. An intimidating defender with a stunningly advanced array of offensive moves, Howard averaged 21 points, 17 boards and eight blocks per game as a junior and led the Warriors to the Class A state finals.

The SchoolSports All-American is often compared to Tim Duncan, and it's certainly not a hollow likeness considering Howard's fundamentally sound, versatile game. His footwork would make a ballet dancer jealous, while his body control and athleticism should be outlawed for a player his size. Throw in the ability to score inside or outside with either hand and the vision to pick apart double teams in the post and you have perhaps the most complete scholastic player in the country.

Averaging a double-double for his three-year varsity career entering this season, Howard has helped Southwest Atlanta Christian to three straight Region 5-A championships and is the consensus favorite among the nation's premier prep players to receive lottery pick consideration in the 2004 NBA Draft.

But mostly, he's just a really good fella.

"I tell people that all the time," says Warriors sixth-year head coach Courtney Brooks, 30, a former Riverwood High and Georgia State point guard. "Take away all the basketball ability and I'd still want to duplicate him 10 times over. He's easy to be around. He's humble. He's nice. You would never know he's considered by many to be the No. 1 player in the country. He doesn't walk around like that. He's a great role model."

Howard comes from a foundation so solid -- teasing about his seventh-grade sweatpants aside -- he can't help being Mr. Nice Guy. His father, Dwight Sr., is a Georgia state trooper (try explaining missing curfew to that guy). His mom, Sheryl, is a physical education teacher at Howard's school (we're guessing there's not a lot of loafing around the house).

His three siblings are every bit as steadying an influence, including older brother David, 33, and big sister Tashanda, 24, who helped lead Division II Fort Valley State University to three straight conference championships at power forward. Younger brother Jahaziel, 14, is a freshman guard at SACA.

Howard is so family oriented, in fact, that the mentality carries over to his court conduct.

"I try not to look at the other guys as teammates, but more as brothers," says Howard, who lists Georgia Tech, Florida, Florida State, North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Georgia among his preferred collegiate destinations if he passes on the pros. "I was raised that way, I guess. God called me to be a leader, and I try to (lead) on and off the court. If somebody needs someone to talk to other than a parent, I like to be a person they can talk to and help get them where they want to go."

Many experts project him to go No. 2 behind UConn's Emeka Okafor if Howard declares himself eligible for next summer's NBA Draft. And it's not uncommon to find Howard's name at the top of those projections, either. But he doesn't even enjoy talking about that stuff these days. Howard's only perspective is on keeping his perspective.

"I just try to get my mind off all the hype and not worry about things I can't control," says Howard, whose versatility on the court stems in part from the fact that he played guard growing up until a six-inch growth spurt as a freshman moved him to the frontcourt. "I concentrate on schoolwork and my game. I keep not thinking about the stuff that could hurt me (by becoming a distraction). Obedience is better than sacrifice."

Good thinking. But how in the name of LeBron can a guy block it all out? The huge crowds, the constant media attention, the clamoring admirers and the Internet rumor mill. Surely there are days when the buzz moves from the bleachers to courtside in the stadium seating of Howard's mind.

"Sometimes it goes through my head, even during a game," he admits. "I just try to prepare myself in practice to be ready for whatever when the time comes. I'm comfortable with anything that happens and any level of attention."

Brooks points to a single game sequence from almost two years ago as an illustration of Howard's essence.

After sitting out the summer following his freshman year with a broken right leg he suffered in June (an injury that forced him to miss two trips to summer team camps), Howard rebounded brilliantly in his sophomore season. But he got in early foul trouble in that year's Region 5-A title game. And with Howard riding the pine after the break, the Warriors squandered a halftime lead.

"He called the team together and said, 'Just play like you played when I wasn't there this summer, and when I get back in, you get on my back,'" recalls Brooks.

On his first possession upon re-entering the game, Howard dunked over two defenders. On his next possession, he swished a baby hook. He scored eight straight points in a 12-0 run that put the game away.

"That was a growing-up game for him," says Brooks. "He plays the game like it's supposed to be played. He said, 'Come on, you can do it,' and that attitude fits who he is."

For his part, Howard is thankful for the firm grounding he draws from his family. Especially while draft rumors crank up as his final high school season kicks off. Predictably, his parents aren't lecturing him about responsibility as much as they are handing it to him.

"They know it's ultimately going to be my decision," says Howard. "They just want me to be ready for the responsibility of either going to college or considering the pros."

As long as he can find sweatpants that fit, Howard should be fine either way.