On the NBA
by: FERNANDO MEDINA, Orlando’s Dwight Howard leads the NBA in rebounding, averaging 13 a game for the surging Magic.

Two of the game's best young big men - Orlando's Dwight Howard and Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal - touched down in Portland within the last two weeks. A few reflections on each:

• Last Friday was Howard's 21st birthday. Imagine how good he will be when he grows up.

The 6-11, 265-pounder leads the NBA in rebounding (13.0), is fifth in field-goal percentage (.610) and is averaging 17.6 points and 1.91 blocks per game. The third-year pro is a perennial All-Star-in-waiting and the biggest reason why the Magic are a threat to make the NBA finals.

'Howard is ahead of just about every big man at this stage of his career with the exception of Tim Duncan,' Portland assistant coach Monty Williams says. 'He doesn't have the poise and footwork Tim had at that age, but you can't find a player that age who has rebounded like he has in the history of the league.

'To have that kind of player is a coach's dream. The stuff he does on the basketball court is all cool, but he's such a solid human being, it makes it even better. From time to time I read this book, 'From Good to Great.' It talks about how if you have the right people on the bus, you don't have to worry about motivating them. … That organization needed a guy like Dwight Howard.'

'He's going to be a force to reckon with the next decade or so,' adds Steve Patterson, Portland's president and general manager. At least.

Is Howard an MVP candidate?

'He will be,' Blazer assistant coach Maurice Lucas says. 'He's getting there. As his scoring goes up, he'll get more recognition.'

Lucas and Williams were both impressed with the Magic, who have benefited from the good health of Grant Hill and the play of third-year point guard Jameer Nelson.

'Grant brings a point-forward type of mentality,' Lucas says. 'He has the ability to control the tempo of the game. The little fellow (Nelson) has just been phenomenal. Nobody is giving him his due, but he causes a lot of trouble because he's so small and so strong, guys can't defend them. Then the big guy behind you is covering for all the defensive mistakes. That makes you a pretty good team.'

Says Williams: 'If Grant stays healthy and Nelson and Carlos Arroyo can keep sharing (point guard) minutes without conflict, that team could easily end up in the finals.'

• When O'Neal passed through town, I asked him if it seemed as if it were only yesterday that he was a wide-eyed 17-year-old rookie with the Blazers, the youngest player in NBA history.

'No, it doesn't, not to me,' O'Neal answered quickly.

Now 28, the 6-11, 260-pound post is in his 11th NBA season.

'It really feels like 11 years,' said O'Neal, an All-Star the past five seasons. 'So much has happened over that time, it has aged my mind quite a bit. I've gotten to the point where I don't really remember my first four years in the league anymore. I had good times and bad times in Portland, but what I remember are good times, mostly. The city is part of my history, professionally and socially.'

O'Neal met his wife, Lamesha, in Portland. Their daughter, Asjia, is 7. In June, their son, Jermaine Jr., was born.

'An eye-opener,' O'Neal said, smiling. '(Having kids) has made me enjoy life a lot more. It's never as bad as you think it is. You have to show patience and learn and get better through your experiences.'

The Pacers-Pistons brawl of November 2004 left a psychological imprint that O'Neal said he only now is shaking from his system.

'It's something I've lived every single day for two years,' he said. 'Basketball kind of became an unsavory thing. You didn't enjoy coming to the gym. It was tense, and it wore me out.'

A month ago, a civil suit against O'Neal for damages during the brawl was dismissed for lack of evidence. Finally, that is past him. The other thing that has dogged him is injuries, which caused him to miss 69 games the past two seasons.

Over the summer, O'Neal underwent the most rigid training regimen of his career. He says he feels stronger and is in better condition than ever. His coach agrees.

'At age 27 or 28 is when you enter your prime,' Rick Carlisle says. 'After the work Jermaine put in during the summer, he's at his peak in terms of strength, quickness, explosiveness and endurance. None of us jump the way we did at 18, but when you combine his knowledge with the tools he has developed and his physical skill set, he's at the top of his game.'

O'Neal, who has missed Indiana's last two games while nursing a sore hamstring, is averaging 18.2 points and 9.8 rebounds and leads the NBA with 3.05 blocks per game. He says the addition of Al Harrington and Marquis Daniels to young talent such as Danny Granger and Jamaal Tinsley gives the Pacers a chance to win a championship in the coming years.

'You can get numbers, you can be an All-Star, but you're never really considered great until you achieve that goal,' O'Neal says. 'There are exceptions, players like Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone who never won a championship, but there aren't very many. For me to be considered in the most elite group, I have to get to the championship, and that's my goal.

'This team has been retooled, but I really feel we can win one. I'm very happy in Indiana, despite what you may read or hear about me wanting to be gone or the team getting tired of me.

'When things go bad, it's not about you, anyway. Our team has been through a lot, but we've never split over it. … You don't want to leave on a bad note. You want to be given an opportunity to excel, to get this team into the finals where it ought to be.'

I don't see it happening for O'Neal, not in Indiana. The Pacers are right where the Blazers were for so many years - good enough to make the playoffs, not good enough to go very far in them, too good to get into the draft lottery and add the best young talent to the mix.

O'Neal, the seventh-highest-paid player this season at more than $18 million, can opt out of his Indiana contract after next season. Since he is due more than $44.3 million over the final two years of his deal (2008-09 and 2009-10), it's doubtful he'll pull the trigger.

It may be that Miller, Barkley and Malone will have some company in their select ringless group when O'Neal's career is complete.

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