Monday, February 23, 2009

The Only Thing To Fear Is Fearlessness

Last week, while watching his 45 point, 19 rebound, 8 block ritual beating of the Charlotte Bobcats, I was struck by an odd feeling: I felt truly sorry for Dwight Howard.

It wasn't the first time I felt that twang of sympathy for the NBA's best center. The first time was during last year's playoffs, when Howard was playing a Raptor's team that had no answer for him.

It sounds like a strange feeling, admittedly. Why would you feel sorry for a man who signed an 80 million dollar contract extension with his team, and has enough endorsement money to replace Iowa with a several hundred mile wide bowl of pudding(which might be an improvement over Iowa as it is now, but that's not important right now). But the reason I felt sorry for Dwight, and the reason I feel sorry for him now is summed up in the one word I've used and heard use in every conversation about Dwight Howard that I can ever remember being a part of: the word "potential".

If you have never seen Dwight Howard up close, you can't really appreciate it. You just can't truly understand how huge this man is until you've seen it up close. He's 6'11" and appears to be carved out of stone, like some Renaissance statue sculpted to depict the perfect center. Standing next to the man, I felt like a little boy, and I say that as someone who's 6'2" in shoes and weighs 175. I'm not exactly a small person, but Dwight Howard made me feel like I was fun-size. That'd be well enough on it's own, but then you watch him play, and you realize that not only is he a giant He-man made entirely out of muscle, but he also runs faster and jumps higher than you ever will.

So when Dwight Howard walks onto a court to play basketball, it's almost impossible to judge him based off the merits of what he does; instead, you are almost forced, subconsciously, to judge him based off what you believe he could do. That's where the whole potential factor creeps into your consciousness. How good would Dwight be if he could hit his free throws? How good would be if he had a few more reliable, go to post moves? How good would he be if he had a reliable face up jumpshot? How good would he be if he brought the intensity on defense every night? How good would he be if he further cut his turnovers down? If he further cut down his fouls?

None of those questions are invalid; rather, they are the kinds of hypotheticals that have come to blur, more and more, the apparency of what Dwight is doing right now. Dwight's numbers this year are great, and most people have no trouble whatsoever admitting that they're great. He's a legitimate top 3-5 MVP candidate, he should be the runaway favorite for DPOY, he's almost assuredly going to lead the league in blocks and rebounds, he's turned into a threat to go off for 20/15/3 every night while playing great defense(which is actually a kind of spectacular feat), all while being a great teammate and a growing leader for his team. In short, he's the consensus best center in the NBA. And he's 23, and constantly getting better.

So when left with a 23 year old who's clearly the best player in the league at his position but is still somewhat raw, I guess the common thinking is to compare him to previous greats at his position. That's fine, and if Dwight truly wants to be the greatest ever as he's said, then that's ultimately what the discussion will evolve into, but is it really fair to compare a 23 year old's potential to prime Shaq? Is it really fair to compare Dwight's rebounding potential to Moses Malone's? To compare his potential post game to Hakeem's? Doesn't saying repeatedly what Dwight isn't just obscure the things Dwight already is?

Perhaps the most common statement about Dwight that you'll hear repeated by people who are, apparently, retarded is: "All he does is dunk". Occasionally, you'll also be blessed with: "He hasn't really improved on offense since coming into the league". Those statements would sound stupid on a message board coming from someone named "Slmdnkchmprulz", but the fact is that I've heard both of those statements at least 5 times a piece this season on league pass by opposing team's announcers, which is, to be perfectly honest, horrifying.

Dwight Howard's post game has clearly developed a great deal, even in just the last 12 months. He's added a running hook shot across the lane with either hand, and a baseline spin move that's unguardable when he's hitting the shot. Hell, even his FT% seems like it's slowly starting to improve, with Dwight at around 64% in 2009. That's not great in the grand scheme of things, but a 5% improvement is still a 5% improvement. And that's not even touching on lesser known things, like the fact that, according to, if Dwight had played enough games to qualify(he'll hit that mark late this season), Dwight's career rebounding percentage of 20.4% would rank 3rd all-time, behind just Dennis Rodman and Swen Nater, or the fact that he's gone from being a decent defender to being arguably the most significant defensive presence in the entire league.

I, for one, can't wait to see what he's like when he finally reaches his potential.

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