- Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic had the last laugh over JaVale McGee and the Wizards Saturday night. (Photo: Associated Press)
Since Dwight Howard came into the NBA at age 18, drafted by the Orlando Magic as the first overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, he has been a nightmare for his opposition to deal with. On looks alone, Howard is the platonic ideal of the modern NBA center: 6 feet, 11 inches, 240 pounds of muscle, and a talent for succulent dunks and emphatic blocked shots
JaVale McGee, drafted with the 18th overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, is not quite the physical specimen that Howard is, but he's not a bad model to build off of: 7 feet exactly, 237 pounds, and that same talent for succulent dunks and emphatic blocked shots.
But McGee is not where Howard is yet, and given just how remarkable Howard's been this season, he might not ever get there. In this, his third NBA season at the age of 22, McGee is averaging ten points, nine rebounds, and three blocks per game. Howard is in his seventh NBA season and will turn 25 December 8. He is averaging 22 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks per game. By a way of comparison with McGee, Howard was averaging 18 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocks per game in his third NBA season.
So when the two centers meet, as they did Saturday night at the Verizon Center, it's always a fascinating contest between the potential (McGee) and the proven (Howard), and usually, as can be expected, the results go the way of the proven. In this season's opening game, Howard recorded 23 points and 10 rebounds fairly easily, while McGee was limited to seven points and two rebounds.
Saturday night started as more of the same. On the very first Magic possession, Howard beat McGee to the spot to receive an interior pass, drew the foul, and finished off the glass. On another possession inside the game's first two minutes, Howard established body position in the paint closest to the basket and received a high-low pass from J.J. Redick for an easy layup while McGee, his back to the passer, flailed helplessly in Howard's wake. Moments later, McGee was substituted from the game after committing a silly traveling violation in the backcourt.
"He made some mistakes early," Wizards head coach Flip Saunders said of McGee. "I thought he was a little hyped up." Earlier, prior to the game, Saunders had called McGee's situation in guarding Howard a "Catch-22."
"You're gonna have to foul him to prevent him getting easy baskets," Saunders said. "But at the same time, you have to avoid getting early fouls." McGee picked up his second foul with 5:09 left in the first quarter.
McGee did have some good moments against Howard. As the Wizards clawed back into the game in the second half, McGee beat Howard to a rebound of a missed Gilbert Arenas free throw and kicked it out to Kirk Hinrich for a three that cut the Wizards deficit to 61-55 at the time. Later in the quarter, McGee anticipated the same type of interior pass that had beaten him in the first quarter and stole it cleanly. At one point in the fourth quarter, McGee's defense even had Howard taking fadeaway jumpers, a shot that Orlando opponents will give him every time.
"I thought he played great," Howard said after the game when asked about his most frequent opponent. "I just think he just got into some foul trouble early on and was on the bench a lot. I have to say, I love his energy though, he's just got to keep working and he'll get there."
"I started to play smarter in the second half," McGee said. "I wasn't worried about being out there as a big body or anything like that, and just tried to play my game."
It was at the very end that the proven and the potential returned to their expected roles. With Jameer Nelson attempting a mid-range runner as the clock wound down and Washington held a one-point lead, McGee left Howard to try and block the shot, as he is wont to do (it's "his game," if you will). Nelson's altered shot drifted right into the waiting hand of Howard, who, rather than bringing the ball down to the floor and risking a hard foul, flicked the ball over the head of the much-smaller Kirk Hinrich (who had come over to take McGee's place), off the glass, and through the net. They were points 31 and 32 for Howard, points 99 and 100 for Orlando, and the ones that ultimately won the game.
"I'd give [McGee] a 'C,'" Saunders said after the game, as he consulted the stat sheet in front of him. "I mean, Howard got 32 points and 11 rebounds. It's hard for me to give him anything higher."