Worth the wait
The Dallas Mavericks coach had his eyes on a particular player, a player he was firmly convinced could come in and make an immediate impact on his talented team.
But there was one problem – one humongous problem. Nelson's Mavericks had the last pick in the first round -- the 29th overall selection. Like most NBA officials, Nelson had serious doubts the player would fall that far.
"I thought he'd be the 12th, 14th pick,'' Nelson said. "That's where I had him going, somewhere in that area.''
But to Nelson's amazement, not to mention his delight, team after team continued to pass on his targeted player until he fell right into Nelson's lap like a gift from heaven. Suffice to say, Nelson was ecstatic.
"I was happy,'' Nelson said was a gleam in his eye and smile a country mile wide.
The Mavericks didn't waste much time making their pick. They selected Josh Howard, a versatile and athletic 6-foot-7 swingman from Wake Forest. Nelson was simply enamored with Howard. He had done his background checks on the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and everything came up positive.
Just how highly did Nelson regard Howard?
"I told him when we drafted him that he would start for me," Nelson said Friday night before the Mavericks-Bucks' game at the Bradley Center. "We didn't have a small forward at that time, and I felt he could fill that spot.''
But the Mavericks wound up with another more talented and more experienced small forward later in the summer. They consummated a blockbuster trade with the Golden State Warriors. The transaction revolved around two key players: Dallas guard Nick Van Exel and Golden State forward Antawn Jamison.
Jamison was coming off a stellar season with the Warriors, and he seemed just what the doctor ordered for the Mavericks in their quest to challenge for an NBA title this season.
With Jamison on board, Howard figured to become a fixture on the bench, needed only in blowouts or an emergency. Not that Howard objected to that scenario.
"I didn't know what to expect when I got drafted by Dallas,'' said Howard, who was the first unanimous ACC
"I went to Dallas just hoping for the best. I had made it in the first round of the draft, and that was my dream.''
Never in Howard's wildest dreams did he envision playing major minutes, much less earn a starting spot, in his first season on such a talent-laden Mavericks team.
But that's just what happened. When Mavs standout guard Michael Finley got hurt, sustaining a sprained right toe. Nelson turned to Howard, who instantly capitalized on his golden opportunity.
In his first start -- a game against the Los Angeles Lakers and their collection of Hall of Fame in-waiting inductees -- Howard shined. In a 44-minute outing, Howard played as well as anyone on the court and registered a double-double with 17 points and team-high 13 rebounds.
The player Nelson so dearly coveted in the draft wasn't going to spend much time on the pine anymore. Howard has started nine more games since that Dec. 12 encounter against the Lakers and he figures to continue starting considering former starting small forward Eduardo Najera is on the injured list with a sore left knee.
"I'm not surprised by what Josh is doing,'' Nelson said. "He was a good player before we got him. He was Player of the Year in the ACC and that ain't bad, is it?
"He's a great kid. I like everything about him. There isn't anything I don't like about him.''
Nelson isn't the only who has been impressed by Howard's rapid development. The Milwaukee Bucks have
Bucks coach Terry Porter said he detected few flaws in Howard's game, and believes the 23-year-old Howard has a promising future.
"Obviously, it's very rare for a rookie to go to an elite team, and they are one of the top five or 10 teams in the league, and get the type of minutes he's getting,'' Porter said of Howard, who is averaging 22 minutes a game. "He's active, he's a good athlete, he seems to defend well.
"He seems to have a nice, all-around game. He has the makings to be a good player.''
Bucks guard Damon Jones is even more impressed with Howard. Jones considers the Mavs' selection of Howard the steal of the draft, and equates it to another memorable heist in the 1998 draft.
"I think he's this year's Paul Pierce,'' Jones said of Howard, who is averaging 8.2 points and 4.8 rebounds and ranks among the leaders in practically every statistical category for rookies. "By that I mean Pierce was the 10th pick in his draft and he should have been drafted higher than that.
"This guy was the last pick in the first round, and he should have been drafted much higher than that. He's putting up legitimate numbers on a superstars-heavy team. He has great potential.''
Of course, Howard hopes to have a lengthy and productive pro career. But he isn't looking to far down the road. He's more focused on the present and trying to do his part for the Mavericks.
Howard fully understands he's still a bit player in the Mavs' always-entertaining show, and that he'll have to defer to the team's star-studded cast of stars.
Whatever Nelson wants him to do, Howard said, he's more than willing to do it.
"My main thing now is to learn,'' Howard said. "I didn't know I was going to be thrown into the mix to fast. But now that I have, I have to learn and play at the same time and whatever mistakes I make I got to correct the next time down the court. To be in this position is amazing.''
Life is good for Howard. It's so good that sometimes he has to pinch himself. He has difficulty comprehending he is playing alongside some of the best players the NBA has to offer: i.e. Dirk Nowitzki, Antoine Walker, Steve Nash, Finley and Jamison.
"I've been watching these guys the last four or five years, since I was in high school,'' said Howard, who grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"It's already been a wonderful experience being with these guys. Sometimes I can't believe it. Sometimes I still look down at the NBA logo on my pants and shake my head. It's a dream come true.''
Gery Woelfel covers the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA for The Racine (Wis.) Journal Times
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