Dwight Howard is a long, long way from reaching his lofty goal of being one of the best to ever play the game, but he certainly is pointed in the right direction.
|The sky is the limit for Dwight Howard. (Getty Images)|
At a time when his position's prominence in the game has diminished, Howard has risen to the top with a rare combination of power and athleticism, showing just a hint of how dominating a great center can be.
His breakout season -- a league-leading 14.2 rebounds, along with 20.7 points and 2.1 blocks -- might be only a preview, merely a tip of his vast potential.
While most of the contenders are banking on perimeter play to carry them, Howard will show that his position has not grown obsolete or insignificant.
Here are the top 20 centers in the NBA, based on players' projected impact on the 2008-09 season:
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando: Howard still has plenty of room and time to grow as an NBA star. The Superman cape he unveiled last All-Star Weekend might not be too much of a stretch. He should start leaping tall buildings soon, eager to continue expanding his game. The Magic have no excuse if they can't build a serious contender around this inside force.
2. Yao Ming, Houston: It's time for Yao to start acting and playing like a former No. 1 pick and lead the Rockets deep into the playoffs. With both Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest alongside him, there should be no reason why Yao can't get the Rockets past any of the Western contenders.
3. Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers: After missing all the playoff fun last season, Bynum could either disrupt what the Lakers had or put them over the top. Now going into his fourth season (directly from high school), he has shown some enormous talent. His trick will be making it fit on a team that reached the NBA Finals without him.
|1. D. Howard||3|
|2. Y. Ming||2||SAME|
|3. A. Bynum||--|
|4. S. O'Neal||4||SAME|
|5. M. Camby||5||SAME|
|6. R. Wallace||8|
|7. J. O'Neal||--|
|8. G. Oden||--|
|9. E. Okafor||6|
|10. T. Chandler||7|
4. Shaquille O'Neal, Phoenix: Sure, he has slowed considerably. He is not as hungry anymore, but he still is a dominating presence around the basket. He is counting down the days to retirement, but if Shaq takes his conditioning seriously, the Suns will give him a chance to add one more championship ring before he leaves the game. And that could motivate him this season.
5. Marcus Camby, Los Angeles Clippers: It's hard to ask for anything more than 13.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocks a game from a center, which still makes Camby valuable, even if Denver didn't want him anymore. From a fantasy perspective, his value will go down when he has to share the lane with Chris Kaman. Together, they should give the Clips a defensive presence.
6. Rasheed Wallace, Detroit: Yes, he's a strange dude, but it's hard to fault his skill set. He can guard the big guys inside, then cause serious matchup problems at the other end with his long-range shooting. He gave Howard and the Magic fits in the playoffs last spring, but he also gives his teammates fits.
7. Jermaine O'Neal, Toronto: Life soured in Indiana, but the move to Toronto should revitalize his career. His presence will allow Chris Bosh to move to power forward, giving the Raptors a nice frontcourt. Remember, O'Neal once averaged 20/10 in back-to-back seasons. And he is only 29 years old, hoping to regain the status he once had.
8. Greg Oden, Portland: He missed all of last season after being the No. 1 pick in the draft, but he will join the league now with a vengeance, making sure his presence is felt. The year off will relieve the pressure of being a No. 1 pick, making his debut season even more impressive.
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando
2. Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix
3. Al Jefferson, Minnesota
4. Yao Ming, Houston
5. Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers
6. Mehmet Okur, Utah
7. Marcus Camby, L.A. Clippers
8. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee
9. Emeka Okafor, Charlotte
10. Brad Miller, Sacramento
11. Tyson Chandler, New Orleans
12. Zach Randolph, New York
13. Chris Kaman, L.A. Clippers
14. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland
15. Al Horford, Atlanta
|2008-09 Fantasy Projections|
9. Emeka Okafor, Charlotte: As long as he understands his role and limitations, he is more than adequate as a center. After a great college career, he came into the league with over-inflated expectations heaped upon him. He is a defender/rebounder who would do well on a better team, but he gets exposed and criticized because he can't carry a bad team like the Bobcats.
10. Tyson Chandler, New Orleans: Although their point guard gets all the credit, the Hornets would not be a contender without Chandler, who has begun to shine after a slow start in Chicago. He needs to block more shots, but averaging a double-double (11.8 ppg and 11.7 rpg) makes him comfortable in his role. Should score a little more this season.
11. Chris Kaman, Los Angeles Clippers: His role looks a little uncertain with Marcus Camby on the roster, but that doesn't take away from a career season. Kaman averaged 15.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks with Elton Brand on the sideline. If Baron Davis will pass him the ball, Kaman will score, but it's unlikely he will get the opportunities he had last season.
12. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland: His toughest assignment is making sure he stays out of the way of LeBron James. Ilgauskas' skills have eroded, but he still can hit the open jumper, make a good pass and guard the slower centers in the league. He needs lots of help trying to guard the younger centers.
Who is the NBA's best center?
Total Votes: 6,611
13. Samuel Dalembert, Philadelphia: He doesn't know it yet, but he will benefit greatly from the addition of Elton Brand, who will garner all the attention around the basket. Dalembert won't have to worry about scoring, which he doesn't do well. Instead, he can focus on what he does do well, and that's rebound and block shots. If he improves his post defense, he can really help turn the 76ers into contenders in the East.
14. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee: Another former No. 1 pick who has been viewed as a disappointment because expectations were too high. Won't ever be a star, but he can be more than adequate. Watch for new coach Scott Skiles to ramp him up a notch. If he can raise his intensity level, Bogut can help bring the Bucks back to respectability.
15. Al Horford, Atlanta: A little out of position, but he handles it well, using his youth and athleticism to provide what the Hawks need at this spot. Had a good rookie season, which gave a young team hope for the future. He is a smart player with a good work ethic, and he should improve considerably this season.
16. Brad Miller, Sacramento: Wiley veteran who still has a nice, well-rounded game. Averaged 3.7 assists, which is tops among all centers in the league. Isn't good enough to carry a team, but he was fine when the Kings were good. On this bad team, some of his talents get wasted. For a guy who never was drafted, he has done well through a 10-year career.
17. Kendrick Perkins, Boston: Virtually invisible while playing in the shadow of the Big Three, but you can't discount the contributions he made for the NBA champions. He understood his role, and he did it well. He averaged just 6.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, but he also shot 61.5 percent from the field. Will want to spread his wings a little more this season.
|Sept. 17||Power forwards|
|Sept. 19||Small forwards|
|Sept. 22||Shooting guards|
|Sept. 24||Point guards|
|Sept. 26||Top 50|
18. Mehmet Okur, Utah: Another one of those unconventional centers who would rather play on the perimeter and shoot the 3-pointers. He does give Carlos Boozer room to work inside. With coach Jerry Sloan riding him, Okur has proved he can play under pressure. Needs to improve defensively to give the Jazz a chance to compete in the West, but he has carved a useful role on an improving team.
19. Andris Biedrins, Golden State: Really isn't a conventional center, but the Warriors are so unconventional that he fits in well. Coming off his best NBA season -- 10.5 points and 9.8 rebounds -- Biedrins has grown into a nice NBA player. His problem is guarding the other big guys.
20. Brendan Haywood, Washington: Always seems to get blamed for Washington's failures, but he has given the Wizards some consistency around the basket. He'll never be anything more than an average center, but the lack of good centers in today's game actually makes him look respectable.