Magic's future depends on progress of Dwight, Darko

ORLANDO -- Otis Smith can't stop smiling, and it's not just because his Orlando Magic are one of the chic picks to make some playoff noise this season.

Instead, the Magic's general manager is beaming like a proud papa these days over the way three of Orlando's youngsters -- namely Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson and Darko Milicic -- have matured almost overnight and taken control of the fate of the franchise.

First, it was Howard who guaranteed that a Magic squad that hasn't been to the playoffs in three years could go all the way this season. OK, guaranteed might be a little strong, but the 20-year-old didn't bat an eye when backed into a corner in the days before training camp was set to open.

"Our team has a chance to go all the way," Howard crowed, seemingly unaware of what he was saying. Pressed on whether he meant all the way to the playoffs, Howard didn't miss a beat. "All the way to the championship," he said.

Normally, such a proclamation would cause a head coach to break out in cold sweats and a GM to put a "For Sale" sign up in his front yard. Not Smith, who was delighted to hear that Howard was exuding confidence out of virtually his every pore.

"I like the fact the kid was willing to make that kind of investment," Smith said. "That's an investment. He said this team is good enough to win a championship, and you know what, we are. Winning a championship doesn't mean having the best five players at each spot. It's every player having a role and playing that role. This team is good enough to do that.

"I'd be disappointed if one through 15 on our team said that the goal was to win 40 games. To me, all Dwight did was say what 480 players in the NBA should be saying. We want to win a championship, or why are we playing?"

If the Magic truly are in the infant stages of building a championship contender, the first steps were taken this summer in, of all places, Philadelphia.

In August, point guard Jameer Nelson arranged for the team to meet in Philly for a week of basketball, bowling, paintball and bonding. Nelson picked up the tab for the whole thing and even arranged each player's travel schedule and the activities while in the City of Brotherly Love.

Smith and the coaching staff might not have gotten an invitation to the players-only retreat, but he couldn't have been happier upon hearing about Nelson's organizing the offseason get-together.

Grant Hill and Howard are the stars of this team, but Nelson is the unquestioned leader. And Smith was delighted to see the player who was passed over by major colleges and then passed over by 19 other teams on draft night coming of age as an NBA leader.

"Jameer's leadership has always been there, but you see him taking it to a whole different level now," Smith said. "You'll see it more and more as he matures. You're talking about a third-year guy who took it upon himself to unite his teammates and pick up the tab in Philly. To me, that's a big deal."

Then, there's the 21-year-old Milicic, who seems more determined than ever now to shed the label of being one of the biggest busts in the history of the NBA draft.

Out of Detroit, where he was buried on the bench for two-plus seasons, Milicic finally has a legitimate shot at meaningful minutes in Orlando. And the Serbian 7-footer, who has had everything from his toughness to his love for the game questioned since he was taken ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in the 2003 NBA draft, seems determined to make the most of this chance.

Told he had to become bigger and meaner if he was ever going to reach his potential, Milicic spent four days a week lifting weights this summer. He not only bulked up from 260 pounds to 278 pounds but also had his way with Spain's Pau Gasol and China's Yao Ming in the World Championship.

Smith and Magic head coach Brian Hill needed little time to see that with Milicic's newfound dedication, combined with his overflowing arsenal of skills, it was time to promote him to the starting lineup. There, he will combine with Howard to give the Magic 14 feet of shot blockers on the front line.

Smith, an everyday man who still eats breakfast at the same Waffle House every morning and lives in a working class-sized home, was promoted to GM this past spring after altering the course of the franchise with two trades. He swiped Milicic and Arroyo from Detroit and got rid of Kelvin Cato in the process. And, remarkably, he somehow unloaded Steve Francis and the $47 million left on his contract on the New York Knicks.

Last season, fans got a taste of just how good the Magic could be. Orlando won 16 of 20 down the stretch, and expectations haven't been this high since Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill signed matching $92.88 million free-agent contracts in 2000. The season-ticket renewal rate and base sales were as high as they have been in 10 years. A new $485 million area in downtown Orlando is close to being approved by the city and county governments. All that is left now is for the Magic to fulfill their vast promise.

So what does Smith tell folks when they ask him if they can believe in Magic again? He puts the load on the shoulders of the Magic's kids.

"I tell people we'll be as good as those two 20-something-year-old kids take us," Smith said, referring to Howard and Milicic. "And we need Jameer to continue to grow as a leader for us. We'll be as good as those guys are this season."

If the preseason is any indication, the Magic have a good chance of being pretty good because of the development of Howard's game. Magic coaches want Howard -- a devout Christian and a sometimes goofy, class-clown-type off the floor -- to be a tougher, rougher physical force this season. Howard is already one of the league's top rebounders; he just missed out on becoming the youngest rebounding champion in the history of the league last season, averaging 12.5 per game. And the Magic feel there is no reason Howard can't become a dominant scorer and an intimidating shot-blocker as well.

He's taken that message to heart, and so far this preseason, he's demolishing all those players in his path. Against Charlotte's Emeka Okafor, the player chosen just behind Howard in the 2004 draft, he scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while fouling Okafor out in just nine minutes. And against Atlanta's smallish frontline, Howard was at his do-it-all best with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots.

"I'm just trying to work on playing hard every single night and being a great leader for this team," said Howard, who is hoping to make the playoffs in his third NBA season just as fellow No. 1 pick LeBron James did in Cleveland. "I'm still young, but there's a high standard that I expect myself to live up to. If I do that, everyone can do it too."

Howard's relentless aggression has seemed to rub off on Milicic, and at times the possibilities seem limitless for the Magic when the two are on the court together. Because their skills are so different -- Howard brings the powerful low-post game, while Milicic has a feathery-soft shooting touch and the passing skills of a guard -- they seem like a match made in heaven. In a preseason game this week against Atlanta, the two displayed their blossoming chemistry by assisting one another on five different baskets.

Much like when Milicic emerged after he was traded from Detroit to Orlando, another trade opened the door for Nelson to step into a leadership position with the Magic. Steve Francis not only dominated the ball on the court, but he also had a domineering presence in the locker room. It was no coincidence that the Magic's hot streak last season coincided with the enigmatic Francis' being shipped to New York and Nelson's taking the reigns.

Barely 6-feet tall, Nelson morphed into a giant killer last season. He averaged 15.7 points over his final 25 games, topping 20 points seven times. What was most impressive was his willingness to take any shot and take on any teammate and challenge him to do more. The next step, naturally, was one in which he became the Magic's unofficial captain.

"I want to be kind of a chameleon for this team," Nelson said. "I want to be able to change, do whatever this team needs for us to win. If it's making the extra pass or hitting the big shot or being a good leader, I'll do it."

The wild card for the Magic, of course, is the oft-injured Grant Hill. For six years, Orlando has been hoping Hill could find a way to somehow stay healthy enough to return to the form that made him a seven-time All-Star. But rarely has that happened as he's missed a staggering 70.5 percent of the games since signing with Orlando.

Hill spent most of his summer working with abdominal guru Alex McKechnie in hopes of healing the sports hernia that limited him to just 21 games last season. Hill's troublesome left ankle, the one he's had operated on five times, was ultimately blamed for the abdominal troubles with the thinking that his changed gait resulted in undue stress on his midsection. But as it turns out, working this past summer to strengthen his abdominal muscles has given him more range of motion in the ankle. Hill says he feels as good physically as he has in years, but does so of course with his fingers crossed.

Smith has discounted the notion of potentially trading Hill and his expiring contract for an unhappy superstar such as Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen. He knows the value of having a veteran such as Hill around when the Magic are leaning so heavily on youngsters. Hill will play at least 78 games and be a difference-maker this season, Smith predicts.

"When we talk about going to the next level, Grant's health is a big key in that," Smith said. "Because when he is on the floor -- and I don't care if he's missed two years or 20 games -- he's still one of the best players out there. I think we're going to have a great year and Grant is, too."

John Denton covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today. You can e-mail him at jd41898@aol.com.