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Magic's Dwight Howard wins defensive player of the year award

The Canadian Press

4/21/2009 6:24:52 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. - It's a question Dwight Howard will never forget.

Early this season, the Orlando Magic centre was talking to Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo. The once great big men were giving Howard some tips, and Mutombo asked him a simple question.

"He said, 'What do you want to be remembered as, the great dunker who won the slam dunk contest with a Superman outfit on, or do you want to do something better than that?"' Howard recalled Tuesday. "I said, 'I want to be one of the greatest players.' And he said it starts with defence."

Mission accomplished.

The 23-year-old Howard became the youngest player to win the NBA's defensive player of the year award Tuesday. Howard was only the fifth player to lead the league in blocks and rebounds in the same season, a goal he set in training camp.

"A lot of guys don't want to go up (for blocks) because they're afraid of getting dunked on," Howard said. "Dikembe and Patrick told me, 'As many times as you're going to get dunked on you're going to have more blocks."'

Howard led the Magic to a second straight Southeast Division title and 59 wins in the regular season, one shy of tying the best record in franchise history set in the 1995-96 season. Orlando trails Philadelphia 1-0 in the first round of the playoffs. Game 2 is Wednesday, and Howard said his scratched eyes won't affect his play for the game.

Howard received 542 points, including 105 first-place votes from a panel of 119 writers and broadcasters. Cleveland's LeBron James was second with 148 points and Miami's Dwyane Wade finished third with 90 points.

Even Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu, not known for his defence, managed to get one third-place vote.

"Probably the most impressive thing about the defensive player of the year award was two things," Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "The fact that Turkoglu finished in the top 16, and probably the fact that Dwight set out at the start of the season with a goal in mind to be the best defensive player in the league. He started with that goal in mind, and he finished it."

Howard averaged 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game this season, his fifth in the league.

The only other players to be rebounding and blocks champions in the regular season were Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ben Wallace. Blocks were not kept as an official statistic until 1973.

"To be the defensive player of the year at 23 is remarkable," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "To be a great defensive player usually comes later in a career. And he still has so much room for improvement."

The award caps a remarkable year for Howard.

He won gold as the centre of the U.S. men's team at the Beijing Olympics, passed Wilt Chamberlain as the youngest NBA player to reach the 5,000-rebound mark and became an all-star for the third time.

Many saw this coming -- just not so soon.

Howard is five months younger than Alvin Robertson, who was 23 years and nine months old when he won the award with San Antonio in the 1985-86 season.

The No. 1 overall draft pick out of high school in 2004, Howard has quickly become one of the NBA's most dominant centres. His chiselled, six-foot-11, 265-pound physique makes him one of the most intimidating players, and his incredible vertical leap is even rarer for a big man.

Sixers forward Andre Iguodala found that out first hand in Game 1 on Sunday. Howard nearly soared over teammate Courtney Lee to block Iguodala's layup attempt into the stands.

Iguodala said Tuesday that it was one of the most embarrassing plays of the season for him.

"It's like he can guard two guys at once. He can guard his guy and the guy coming off the pick-and-roll, which is almost impossible to do," Iguodala said. "If he gets any more athletic or jumps any higher, they're going to have to change the rules."

Howard followed in the footsteps of one of his idols, Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, in jumping straight from high school to the pros. He took No. 12 for his jersey, in part, because it's the reverse of Garnett's 21 and allows him to pay homage to the player he looked up to as a kid. Garnett wears No. 5 with the Celtics because Bill Sharman's 21 is retired.

Now the pair have even more in common. Garnett won the award last season for anchoring a Boston defence that won the NBA title. Howard joked Tuesday that he didn't even know Garnett won the award but was honoured to be in the same class as his idol.

Howard also gave credit to his teammates, and in typical fashion, he threw in a one-liner to explain his case.

"I really appreciate those guys for allowing their man to get to the basket to give me the opportunity to get blocks," Howard joked.