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Big doings: Perkins vs. Howard

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 6, 2009
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Kendrick Perkins had already been in the league a year when the Orlando Magic took Dwight Howard with the first pick in the 2004 NBA draft.

The two players came into the league under similar circumstances - high schoolers all but guaranteed to jump to the pros - but the hype was different. So were the scouting reports.

A 6-foot-10-inch McDonald's All-American from Beaumont, Texas, who had led Ozen High School to a 100-4 record in his final three years, Perkins might have been the best high school big man in his draft class, but that class happened to include possibly the most anticipated high school player ever to be drafted: LeBron James.

Skeptical of how Perkins would progress in the league, most draft experts pegged him as a low first-rounder. He was taken with the 27th pick.

Howard was a different animal. If there were a high school player that came out with something close to James's buzz, it was Howard - the Georgia kid with the 1,000-watt smile and sky-high upside.

The only thing that stood in the way of Howard being the No. 1 pick that year was Connecticut big man Emeka Okafor, who had three years of college. But the Magic went for Howard's potential over Okafor's experience.

That summer, Perkins and Howard crossed paths in Bradenton, Fla., at the Clifford Ray and Robert Parish Big Man Camp.

"He still had his same chiseled body," said Perkins. "He was just a little smaller."

They developed a respect for one another.

"I think he saw how hard I worked and how skinny I was when I first got drafted," Howard said, "and how I was able to grow into myself and grow into my game. I always battled back then."

Howard, of course, developed into the Defensive Player of the Year and a player the Magic could practically pencil in for a double-double. Perkins became an NBA champion and progressed into one of the league's best interior defenders.

None of this surprised Ray.

When asked about the potential he saw in the two, Ray said, "I saw what I'm seeing right now."

Ray, a 10-year NBA veteran who won a championship with Golden State in 1975 and was one of the best rebounders in Warriors history, didn't find it easy to break into the league's coaching circles. The break he did get came with strings: The Dallas Mavericks gave him a part-time coaching job in 1987, and made mopping floors and cleaning toilets part of his duties.

But he went from that job into roles with the Magic and now Celtics as a big man coach, and in two decades, he has made a name around the league as one of the best at what he does.

"I worked for three organizations that I have nothing but the utmost respect for," Ray said. "That is the Dallas Mavericks - they gave me an opportunity to coach - the Orlando Magic, and the Boston Celtics."

Ray has left his fingerprints on the careers of Chris Webber, Ben Wallace, P.J. Brown, and Al Jefferson, among others.

When the Magic drafted Howard, they hired Ray to coach him.

Everything Howard learned offensively, Ray credits to Knicks legend and now Magic assistant Patrick Ewing.

"The only thing I brought to Dwight," Ray said, "was how to work hard. His foundation to work hard, that's what I gave to him."

That summer at Ray's Big Man Camp, Perkins wasn't yet a champion and Howard wasn't one of the faces of the league.

"They were just young players trying to be good," Ray said.

Seeing them go at each other, Ray observed some of the same qualities in both players.

"Kendrick has the same kind of skills as Dwight," Ray said. "He's just not as athletic as Dwight, but they both basically play the game the same way."

But the differences were just as noticeable.

"Dwight's a power player, but he's athletic," said Ray. "Perkins is a power player with strength and a knowledge of the game well past his youth. Perkins is a student of the game."

Perkins is nothing if not honest. A year ago, when he was flooded with questions about Lakers center Andrew Bynum, he shrugged them off and said he thought Bynum was soft. After going seven games with Chicago in the opening round of these playoffs, Perkins said that, initially, he didn't have much respect for Bulls big man Joakim Noah, but that Noah had done enough in that series to earn it.

But when Perkins talks about Howard, the respect is there.

"Just playing against him and how physical he is and how dominant he is," Perkins said, "you've got to give him his props. He goes hard."

The respect is mutual.

"I've seen him grow over the past couple of years," Howard said. "He's been doing an excellent job for their team. He's picked his game up."

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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