Dwight Howard likes high-percentage shots. As in slam dunks.
On a recent visit to North Carolina to take on the Charlotte Bobcats, Howard, a 22-year-old center for the Orlando Magic, took advantage of his superb size and skills while leading his surprising young team to a 16-point victory. Howard created constant mismatches close to the basket for the outmanned Bobcats as he scored a team-high 33 points, while collecting 18 rebounds.
Nights like these have become more and more common for Howard and Orlando, a franchise on the rise in the Eastern Conference. To date, the Magic has compiled one of the conference's best records (27-17 through Jan. 24) while raising eyebrows across the NBA.
"They did a tremendous job building their team," says Jalen Rose, a retired NBA veteran and current ESPN analyst. "The core of their team was built through the draft with Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Then you go out and get what you need."
Indeed, the Magic began building a new kingdom in the 2004 draft in the wake of a dreadful 21-61 season.
Orlando made Atlanta prep sensation Howard the No. 1 overall pick in that draft and then grabbed Nelson, a standout guard, in a draft-day trade.
Those moves led to a 15-game improvement in wins during 2004-05. Last season, the Magic reached the playoffs for the first time in four years, losing to Detroit in the opening round. This season, Orlando is causing a stir with its latest leap up the NBA ladder, one that could put the team in the upper tier for years to come.
Such bold strides give Magic fans hope of a renaissance echoing the franchise's mid-1990s glory days. Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway made Orlando a giddy young powerhouse, with enough star power to fuel pop-culture cachet and power a run to the NBA Finals. Soon enough, O'Neal left to become a Los Angeles Laker and Hardaway became injury-prone. Subsequent Orlando runs – led by Grant Hill and, later, Tracy McGrady – came unraveled.
A slow but steady rebound began in 2004, capped by several prominent moves in recent months.
During the off-season, Orlando added a key player to its lineup by trading for Seattle scorer Rashard Lewis. A veteran forward with a nifty range for his position, Lewis has helped the Magic force teams to focus on more than Howard, the anchor in the middle.
"I don't ever talk about expectations," says Stan Van Gundy, hired as Orlando's head coach last summer. "And the reason is simply this: If we would've started the year and had a goal for the first 20 games, with 13 of them on the road and a new coach, what would the goal have been? Ten wins, 12? So what do you when you get to that? Just stop?"
Stop, no; face opponents energized to knock off a fledgling power, yes.
Van Gundy and NBA experts agree the true test for Orlando will come during the rest of the season. Now that the Magic are no longer a novelty, opponents will no longer be surprised by Orlando's proficiency. They will also contest every basket and make Howard, a notoriously poor free-throw shooter, work for everything he gets.
"They're not giving Dwight a lot of easy stuff like they were" earlier in the season, says Adonal Foyle, a 10-year veteran who spells Howard off the bench.
That said, Foyle expects Howard and the rest of the team to adapt. "I hate him," Foyle says in mock annoyance. "He can go out and work all day and not get tired." On a more serious note, Foyle says, "He's so giving of himself and to his team. That's rare. He can motivate his teammates at 22."
Van Gundy, the head coach, offers a prime example of the Magic's resilience. Last summer, Orlando hired Billy Donovan, who had just won his second straight NCAA championship at the nearby University of Florida, as the franchise's new head coach.
A week later, Donovan backed out of his contract and returned to his college coaching job. When Donovan reneged, Orlando turned to Van Gundy, an NBA lifer who had been pushed aside by Miami and Pat Riley in 2005.
Van Gundy assessed the Magic and converted it to a running team. Lewis, the scorer acquired over the summer, helped make Orlando a team with a stronger outside shooting attack to bolster Howard's inside dominance.
"He stretched the defense," says former NBA coach and current ABC analyst Hubie Brown. "He causes so many problems."
Now the Magic must develop the maturity to handle early successes and cope with the inevitable valleys inherent in the NBA's marathon 82-game regular season.
Several concerns remain, starting with stiffer defense and fewer turnovers. Howard is prone to the latter, but his dominance in other areas makes it impossible to curtail his playing time.
Still, few doubt that the ascendant Magic can be put off much longer. The young cast of rising stars and the steady hand of Van Gundy ensure better days ahead. "People always like to use the excuse of being a young player or a young team," says Rose. "You don't hear any excuses coming out of Orlando."