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01-09-2004, 07:16 PM
NBA Draft: Howard's No. 1

First for the good news. There will be no Dwight Howard watch this season. No endless replays of him dunking over scared, skinny 6-foot-4 kids. No talk of him signing a $100 million deal with Nike. No Hummer scandal. No Michael Jordan comparisons. Chances are, you'll never see him play before a highlight reel rolls on draft night.

Now for the tough love. Howard, a 6-foot-11, 255-pound, 18-year-old power forward from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy (SACA), will not save the NBA. He will not average 19.9 ppg during his first few months in the league. He may not even be the top candidate for the NBA Rookie of the Year.

Finally, the hating. His game resembles Kwame Brown's more than LeBron's.

However, if things continue as they have, he will be the first player to hear his name called at the 2004 NBA Draft on June 24. Ladies and gentleman, we give you the consensus top NBA prospect in the country.

Is he the next Tim Duncan as one scout claims? Is he the next Kevin Garnett as another gushes? Or is he the second coming of Kwame, as a third scout warns in hushed tones?

The comparisons to the only other high school big man to be taken No. 1 are obvious. Like Brown, Howard is an athletic freak for his size. He runs the floor like a guard, can jump out of the gym, shoot from the perimeter, handle the ball in traffic and packs enough meat on his bones to pass for a guy five years older.

He has dominated at the Adidas ABDC camp and won top honors at the Player's Association Top 100 Camp in Richmond, Va., this summer. His AAU team, the Atlanta Celtics, is the most talented in years, with three legit NBA prospects. This season, Howard is averaging around 27 points, 18 rebounds and 8 blocks.

And like Brown, he comes from a little school in Georgia. He's polite. He comes from a big family. He's humble, even soft spoken, and, some claim, just a little bit soft.

"You're not going to find a better person that's in the same position he's in," SACA coach Courtney Brooks says. "He's very humble. He's a kid. He has a little boy smile about him and a peace that's God sent."

You're not helping, Coach. Three years ago scouts were convinced Brown had the skills to become a new breed of multi-skilled athletic power forward in the NBA. America's answer to Dirk Nowitzki, if you will. After seeing him flounder in Washington for three years, you think a scouting report like that would be the kiss of death.

You'd be wrong. Comparisons to Brown won't stop Howard from going No. 1. Scouts believe he's mentally tougher and has more heart than Brown and, in the right situation, could turn into the dominant player many thought Brown would be.

That's why the reports from NBA scouts all appear to agree he's the best prospect in the draft. At his size, he can do just a little bit of everything. He dominates in the paint but also has the ability to step out and hit shots on the perimeter. His ball handling is so good, he often handles for his team in the fourth quarter. He's murder on the fast break. He's quick off the dribble and off the floor. He's not afraid to crash the glass and is an excellent shot blocker. He hustles, has a nose for the ball and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He's mature, a hard worker, has a great attitude and has improved dramatically over the course of his three years playing high school ball.

On paper, at least, he's the perfect prospect.

One scout asked about the weaknesses in Howard's game gave this stunning response: "I'm still looking. He's almost too good to be true. You hate to claim that a guy might be too nice for the NBA, but that's about the most that I can come up with. I'm not sure he really has the edge that the great ones like Garnett and [Amare] Stoudemire had. He's going to take longer to adjust than LeBron, because he still needs to learn the game, but he's got the chance to be a really great player."

Every other scouting report is pretty similar. Comments like "he needs time to develop" or "he needs to be a little nastier" are about the only negative things you hear.

Emeka Okafor might have more experience. Several international players are taller and have more big-time playing experience. But no one eligible for this year's draft has the package Howard does, which is why he's mentioned, now almost unanimously, as the likely No. 1 pick.

Howard, despite his perceived humility, doesn't disagree. Not only does he think he's ready, he believes he could be better than LeBron.

"If I go pro, I'm thinking I'm going in there to dominate right away," Howard told USA Today a few weeks ago, "What I want to do is ... show everybody LeBron just set a standard for high schoolers that we can play basketball with the big boys ... I think I can surpass LeBron."

Howard isn't alone. Scouts generally agree the high school Class of 2004 is the strongest since the class of 2001 that featured Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and DeSagana Diop in the top eight. Scouts believe as many as four high school seniors could crack the lottery this year, and two or three more could end up in the first round -- a record for high school draft entrants.

Clearly, that backlash scouts predicted after Kwame and Co. struggled in year one hasn't materialized.

Here's a quick look at five other high school seniors whom scouts are watching this season.

Josh Smith, SG/SF, Oak Hill Academy
The facts: 6-8, 200
The skinny: Think Darius Miles with a jump shot. That's the rep Smith has going into the draft and why most scouts claim he'll be a top-10 selection if he comes out. Before you get too excited (Miles went No. 3), the comparison evokes both the good and the bad. Smith is a top-notch athlete and has guard skills for his size. He jumps out of the gym and can run all day. Unlike Miles, he's a pretty proficient shooter, though he still needs to improve on his 3-point range. The problems, however, are also there. He's rail thin, and scouts wonder how he'll handle the rigors of the NBA. He sometimes shrinks in the paint and isn't the rebounder scouts think he should be for his size. He relies on his athleticism too much at times and still is learning the game. He doesn't have any real go-to moves and sometimes hesitates to take his man off the dribble. His ball-handling needs improvement if he's going to make the transition to the three in the pros. Even with all those holes, scouts still think he's a lottery prospect, though some say mid-first round is more realistic.

Shaun Livingston, PG, Peoria, Illinois
The facts: 6-7, 180
The skinny: When the best point guard in the country also happens to be 6-foot-7, talk of making a jump to the NBA is inevitable. The thing about Livingston is that, despite his size, he's a pure point guard with amazing court vision and a real flair to his game. He snuck down to Hoops Gym in Chicago this summer to play with several NBA players, and word was he more than held his own. While fans will love his artistry with the basketball, scouts adore that he plays that way without being prone to turnovers. Think Jalen Rose without the selfishness. Livingston has committed to Duke, but sources claim he'll come out if he's projected to go in the lottery. Right now scouts have him right on the fence, but a strong workout or two could easily get him in.

Robert Swift, C, Bakersfield
The facts: 7-1, 240
The skinny: Swift already is earning a rep as possibly the best American center in the draft. He's quick, relatively athletic and knows how to score and rebound in the paint. He has great hands and footwork for someone his age, plays aggressively and, believe it or not, is a decent passer from the post. While scouts know he's going to have to bulk up to play heavy minutes in the pros, almost all of them believe he has the talent to go in the late lottery right now. Some scouts believe he is the second-best high school prospect. The fact that academic issues may keep him from keeping a verbal commitment to USC also will factor into his decision to turn pro.

Al Jefferson, PF, Prentis High, Mississippi
The facts: 6-9, 270
The skinny: Jefferson is perhaps the strongest high school player in the country, and many believe he's the best pure low-post player in his class. Jefferson is a man child, with an NBA body and NBA athleticism. He's a fierce worker in the paint, drawing comparisons to Amare Stoudemire. He has soft hands for his size and has a surprising mid-range jumper that he's been improving over the past year. Scouts worry about his conditioning a bit, and about his position. Weight has been an issue, with most scouts feeling he could stand to lose 10 to 20 pounds. He plays center in high school, but at 6-foot-9 will have to make the transition to power forward in the pros. While scouts think Jefferson is a good athlete, his size limits his quickness and explosiveness. Originally scouts felt Jefferson would enter the draft as long as he was projected to be a first-round pick. However, he has made some recent statements that indicate he may honor a commitment to Arkansas if he isn't projected to go in the lottery. That may be a stretch, given the other talented prospects ahead of him.

LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Seagoville, Texas
The facts: 6-11, 225
The skinny: Aldridge has made drastic improvements over the past year, leading NBA scouts to take a second look at the big kid from Texas. Once considered just a low-post guy, Aldridge worked hard over to improve his outside shooting and ball handling. He has succeeded to the point that many scouts feel he could end up playing some three in the league.