The All-Star break couldn't have come sooner for the Mavs--that's the simple truth. They were starting to play better, sure, but the first half of the season was unexpectedly taxing on the court. The media often crucified the lot of them for not living up to the enormous expectations that come with such a talented roster. They needed the rest, as much to recover physically as mentally.
It was no surprise, then, that a day after the All-Star game, head coach Don Nelson looked at ease, even re-energized. He gathered the media and smiled jovially while being peppered with queries, including one about whether he'd seen his young charge, Josh Howard, in the rookie game. (The theory here is that only those affiliated with the NBA knew the rookie game was played Friday night; anyone who says different is a liar... a liar.)
"No, I didn't get to see him," Nellie says, setting us up by adding that he tried to get away from basketball for the week. Perhaps he was home working on his comedic talent, which brings us to the punch line: "From what I understand, it was enough to make me throw up."
In every joke there's a modicum of truth, and in this instance there's more. Howard played well while in Hollywood--he came off the bench to drop 13 points and four assists--but somewhere along the way, perhaps while packing for the trip, he uncharacteristically forgot all about the end of the floor where he usually excels, the end where you don't score. He wasn't alone. All-Star weekend in the NBA is a lot like saying Ben Affleck's movies make for good theater--there's just no defense.
Jesting and the All-Star weekend aside, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who's seen the kid play in a real game who isn't impressed. "He's a good rookie," Nellie finally offers. "We're as pleased with him as we could be."
So, it seems, are the fans. Howard has developed a bit of a cult following. It's gotten to the point that after commenting that a co-worker was "duped" into buying a "raggedy-ass" Howard T-shirt, he responded by threatening to punch me in the face. The co-worker, that is, not Howard.
"This has been more than I expected--all of it," Howard says, standing behind a basketball goal and contorting his body to look very much like "The Thinker"--only taller and with a headband. "Coach has been great to me. The guys have been great to me. The fans have been great to me. The whole experience has been great."
Maybe even a little unexpected. He was a great player at Wake Forest--lean and long, able to defend on the perimeter or spot up for a smooth jumper. He was good enough to be named first team All-America, good enough to be selected the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, good enough to be only the 10th player in his school's history to have his jersey retired and permanently hoisted above the court for all to see and revere. He was, if you've somehow failed to catch on, quite good.
But the NBA is a curious league. Come draft time, players get passed over all the time. Paul Pierce comes to mind. Less-accomplished players (remember Tractor Traylor?) went ahead of him, but he did go 10th overall. Not so for Howard. He was barely selected in the first round--29th. When he was picked by the Mavericks, a team replete with big-name players, you could hear the scouts and the pundits readying their pencils to write him off.
"Oh, yeah, it was frustrating," Howard says. He looks like a man pleased that what he is about to say next is behind him. "I thought I did pretty well in college. I thought I'd get picked higher. I watched the draft with my family. My friends were there, too. But when it kept going and I wasn't picked yet, I was like, 'The hell with it.' That's the attitude I took. A few years ago, I might have gotten angry. I had a problem with that early in college--with my attitude. I think I've matured, yeah. I just said, whoever picks me, I'm gonna show them. You know, show them they did the right thing."
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Serendipity aided that effort. Early on, injuries cleared the way. One day Michael Finley needed the recovery time; the next it was Tony Delk. And on and on. Howard remained healthy, which helped. So did the fact that he's young and eager and well-versed in sound defensive philosophy. That's what caught Nellie's eye first--his fundamentals when playing at that end of the court. He's quick afoot and athletic and willing to work on defense. Almost as important: He's a lot like me--tough. Earlier in the season he took a head-butt from Knicks banger Kurt Thomas and didn't so much as blink or tear up. My kind of guy. All of which--the defense and the guts--haven't exactly been staples of Mavericks basketball over the past few years. And there it is. That's why he's here. That's why he was given a shot instead of being shunted off to the shadows. As any economist will tell you, it's a supply-and-demand world.
"He's been great for us," Antawn Jamison says, thereby fulfilling his contractual obligation to appear in this column at least bimonthly. "I still don't understand how a guy like him was drafted so low. He's done well with the opportunities he's been given. And I think it's better to have a rookie come in and contribute than just sit at the end of the bench. The way he plays helps. He gives us exactly what we need."
More, actually. Howard is averaging 8.6 points and 5.6 rebounds to go with his capable defense. He is, unlike most rookies not named LeBron or Melo, a serious contributor rather than a space filler or a liability. Among the neophytes, his numbers are good enough to place him seventh in scoring and fifth in rebounds. Which may be why he is, at times, in the starting lineup, displacing other, more experienced players. And that's the real trick--managing to crack the top five without a disgruntled teammate cracking him.
"I was aware of the situation here," Howard says. "We're loaded. I just tried to be humble with the older guys. And I've never had a problem with 'D,' so I was thinking differently than everyone else, I guess. I mean, no one really thought I would play much here. I never thought of it that way. I just thought I had to do what they asked me to do. I just want them to keep asking me to do something."