- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. | In the past two seasons, Dwight Howard has worked toward distinguishing himself as the top center in the NBA. And he took another step forward by leading his Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals.

But with his team down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s evident that regardless of his impressive size, strength and athleticism, the fourth-year pro still has significant strides to make.

After averaging 21.7 points and 15.4 rebounds during the first three rounds of the playoffs - including 25.8 points and 13.0 rebounds in the Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland - the going has gotten tougher for Howard. Now he’s matched up with Andrew Bynum, who possesses similar strength, and Pau Gasol, a crafty veteran who has found ways to read Howard’s offensive tendencies.

Suddenly, Howard’s game has been exposed on the offensive end.

“He’s limited right now because he only has a few moves,” former NBA coach Hubie Brown said. “When you are a graceful pivot guy and you make your catch and you take that first move and that guy takes it away, you immediately drop-step and pull the ball with the same hand you’re dribbling with. You don’t switch hands, and another thing you sure as hell don’t do is you don’t try to run over the guy. That’s what he tries to do.”

When it comes rebounding and shot blocking, Howard has remained unmatchable. Howard this series has averaged 16.5 boards and a postseason-high 4.2 blocks. But he’s averaging just 16.5 points on a personal post-season low .471 shooting percentage.

The offensive woes are greatly to blame on Howard’s inability to counter what Gasol, Bynum and their teammates have thrown at him. Coach Phil Jackson and his staff have routinely had the Lakers’ big men trap Howard along the baseline; they’ve fronted him and forced him away from the basket so he can’t score on routine dunks.

When the Magic have dumped the ball down low to Howard, the Lakers have forced him to the baseline. Then he has found another Lakers player impeding his path to the basket. Trapped, he has had to pass the ball.

Former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now an assistant coach charged with Bynum’s development, has noticed deficiencies in Howard’s game.

“He’s still offensively kind of raw,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He doesn’t have a go-to move yet. Right now, he’s kind of predictable.”

Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said the key for Howard is to use hustle and energy to beat defenders so he doesn’t get pinned into unfavorable positions.

For his part, Howard has shouldered criticism while making it clear he in no way views himself as a complete player.

“I’m 23,” Howard said. “Each year, if you want to become a great player, you have to add something to your game. I think the running hook for me is something that I’ve added, and it’s taken a lot of wear and tear off my legs by doing that instead of trying to overpower and dunk on people the whole game. For this series, I haven’t dunked the ball very much, so I don’t think I’ve been doing a lot of overpowering. I think it’s been more finesse, as you would call it.

“But Kareem is right, and he understands that in order to be a good player you have to add different things to your game. I’ve tried to do the sky hook just like him, but he had more range and more touch. He was shooting sky hooks from the 3-point line, and I’m still working on it from the paint - so I’ve got a long way to go.”