Joshua Jay Howard was born on April 28, 1980, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Josh was not a healthy baby. His legs were deformed, curved inward so profoundly that doctors advised his mother, Nancy Henderson, to consider breaking and re-setting them so that they would grow straight. She agreed, and the procedure was a success.
Nancy was a single parent who raised her son with ample assistance from two of Josh's grandparents, Helen Howard and Johnny Jay, and plenty of other relatives. Josh's father, Kevin Robinson, walked out on the family when the boy was an infant. It wasn't until after his 11th birthday that Josh had his first conversation with his dad. By then the youngster wanted nothing to do with him.
Despite Josh's displeasure with his father, he owed one thing to him: his basketball talent. Kevin had been a local hoops legend in his yougner days, and Josh seemed to inherit his feel for the game.
also fed Josh's interest in basketball, although unknowingly so. She was
employed as a custodian at Kernersville Glenn High School, and also worked
once a week as a maid for an attorney on the north side of town. Josh
often accompanied his grandmother to her second job, and they would pass
by the gates of Wake Forest University. Josh had no idea what Wake Forest
was, even as he rooted for the school’s basketball rivals, UNC and
Duke. For many years he thought the campus was a forest. When Wake started
making headlines with Tim Duncan, Josh finally put it all together.
and Helen always drummed into Josh’s head that he was going to get
an education. This was non-negotiable, and even when the boy’s basketball
skills began to blossom, they told him he’d better earn a scholarship,
because he was going to college whether he played or not.
But Josh loved the game and in 1994, when he enrolled at Kernersville Glenn, he went out for the team. His friends teased him when they heard he was in tryouts, and were shocked when he made it. Napoleon Cloud, a legend in NC prep hoops circles, saw what Josh’s friends didn’t. Here was a kid with a great body, a lot of desire, an even temperament, and a clear love of the game. He would give the last spot on his bench to boy like that any day of the week. Nancy and Helen were proud of him. They knew that nearly two dozen of Cloud’s players had won scholarships with major hoops programs.
Josh started developing into an inside force during his sophomore season, as a forward and center. He now stood close to his current height of 6-6 and his body was beginning to fill out. He had worked hard for more than a year and could now handle the ball as well as any of the team’s frontcourt players. Meanwhile, his timing and leaping ability were coming together to produce some eye-popping plays. It was not unusual for Josh to go up for a rebound, and just dunk it while he was up there. He could finish on the break, and score on wrap-around dunks flat-footed from under the basket. As long as there was vertical space available, he could put the ball in the hole.
Like any high school sophomore, Josh had his embarrassing moments, and struggled with his consistency at times. Still, coach Cloud and teammates were amazed at how relaxed he was, on and off the court. Josh proved a great leveling influence on a good squad that found itself in a lot of high-pressured games. His attitude was always cool and composed—don’t worry about our opponent, let’s just go out there and have fun.
Josh continued to develop during his junior year, becoming Glenn’s top player. For the season, he averaged 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks, and shot 70 percent form the floor. This attracted the attention of several nearby schools, including Clemson, East Carolina and UNC-Greensboro. They were joined by scouts from other colleges during Josh’s senior season, when he upped his scoring 27.3 points, whie remaining a terror on the boards and on defense. Josh concluded a dazzling 1997-98 campaign by playing in the first Carolinas All-Star Basketball Classic, which brought together the top seniors from North and South Carolina. He blew away the competition ad was selected as the event’s MVP.
A no-brainer recruit right? Wrong. Josh was a C+ student who was not particularly enthusiastic about academics. He tended to go through his classes cafeteria-style, doing well in some and bombing out in others. He did enjoy the different literature he was exposed to at Glenn. His favorite play was Shakespeare’s Othello. Unfortunately, Josh was a lousy test-taker. In his first try at the SATs, he scored a 770—50 points under the bar for Division I schools. The recruiters began to shy away.
ON THE RISE
Josh did not want to go the JUCO route; Nancy and Helen wouldn’t have let him. To get his grades up, he transferred to the Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, for what was essentially a redo of his senior year. The tougher academic environment would push his test scores over the minimum, while a fifth year of basketball would sharpen his game, particularly on the defensive end.
Josh’s new coach, Scott Shepherd, saw in him a player who would reach the next level only be doubling his effort on the court. Josh told his coach he wanted to play in the ACC, for his hometown school, Wake Forest. Fine, responded Shepherd, but to star in the nation's top collegiate hoops league, he would need to reinvent himself . Playing Mr. Cool might be okay for the local yokels at Glenn, but he needed a personality change to Mr. Intensity for the rigors of the ACC. Josh agreed to get with the plan.
a pressing man-to-man defensive system, and Josh took to it quickly. He
didn’t just guard opponents, he choked off their games. On the offensive
end, meanwhile, Josh averaged a respectable 19.9 ppg, and added 10.1 rebounds
and 6.1 assists. He led Hargrave to a 27-3 record and was named First-Team
Josh earned a starting job as a freshman for the 1999-2000 season. Once he found his rhythm, he began to play with great freedom. He quickly established himself as the ACC’s most athletic freshman, and, by the end of his first campaign, probably its most athletic player. He soon became the man Odom assigned to the enemy’s superstar, be he a guard or forward. In Wake’s zone, he was the player opponents least liked to see on a double-team. Josh was all over the place, and his aggressiveness also helped sophomore center Darius Songaila find his game. Together, the two gave Wake a respectable front line.
was a problem for Wake. Josh was contributing about 10 a night, but he
was mostly an inside player. The lack of outside production killed the
Demon Deacons, and by mid-year they were staring down the barrel of a
losing season. Odom decided to turn the team’s best shooter, point
guard Robert O’Kelley, into a two-guard to force him to shoot more,
and installed, Ervin Murray, who had been a swingman in high school, at
the point. It was a weird move, but somehow it worked and Wake won eight
of its final nine games to earn an NIT bid. With O’Kelley shooting
lights out, the Demon Deacons won the tourney.
The still- unheralded Demon Deacons started the 2000-01 season like a house afire, including a surprising blowout of Kansas. Josh scored 21 in the 84-53 victory, which happened to be the second-worst thrashing ever endured by coach Roy Williams. An important new contributor who emerged early in the year was sixth man Craig Dawson, who learned his game from his uncle, Jerry Stackhouse.
In December, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Wake, spotlighting Josh and alluding to the fact that he might turn out to be their best player. As the year wore on, he proved the magazine right. Josh’s defense and rebounding triggered Wake’s transition game, and on offense, he could nail a three or slash to the basket. Although Josh eschewed the mantle of leadership, his consistently hard play and willingness to leave it all on the floor inspired his teammates throughout the year.
Wake finished the
year at 21-10, including its second-roudn exit from the ACC Tournament,
and earned a seven seed in the Big Dance. The team’s opener against
Butler was a disaster, as the Demon Deacons found themselves down 43-10
at the half of a game they eventually lost by 16. The defeat cost Odom
his job, and cast a shadow over the following season.
Josh became the star of the Wake team that created a lot of havoc for their opponents. They nearly beat #2 ranked Maryland in a February match-up, but Josh—who was having a whale of a game—lost track of his team’s timeouts and called one the Demon Deacons didn’t have. The Terps were awarded a technical and won 90-89 when Juan Dixon connected from the foul line. That was obviously a low point for Josh, but the real downside was a pair of injuries, a high ankle sprain and shin splints that he just couldn’t seem to shake.
Josh played well enough to receive Third-Team All-ACC honors, but his season took another unfortunate turn in the ACC Tournament when he stepped on an opponent’s foot against Georgia Tech. He never returned to full speed again that spring, and despite another seven seed in the NCAA Tournament, Wake's hopes were not particularly high.
In the first round, Prosser’s wide-open all-court attack was good enough to beat Pepperdine’s wide-open all-court game. But in Wake's next matchup, against Oregon, Josh was in pain from the start. He labored through six minutes, scoring just six points, as the Demon Deacons lost 92-87.
MAKING HIS MARK
Josh had been entertaining
thoughts of jumping to the NBA. But his disappointing postseason swayed
him back toward Wake for his senior year. It turned out to be the best
decision he ever made. Given that Josh was one of only two seniors on
Wake, the 2002-03 Demon Deacons would be his team. How this inexperienced
squad would fair against ACC opponents was anyone’s guess. Most
of the preseason polls ranked them fifth or sixth in the league, a few
even lower. But few people counted on Josh blossoming into one of the
best all-around players in the league. A summer spent working at a rec
center had enabled him to spend countless hours honing his long-range
jumper, adding another dimension to his game.
The Demon Deacons began the year winning every one of their non-conference games, including a 90-80 thrashing of Wisconsin in which Josh hit for 31. Then they held their own against ACC competition. In Wake’s first meeting with UNC, Josh came out firing, scoring 32 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, hitting the game-winner and making the game-ending defensive stop. He maintained his brilliance for the rest of the schedule, leading the team in scoring almost every night, and dominating on the boards and in the paint. At one point in the season, Wake was out-rebounding opponents by 15 a game.
In a crucial meeting with NC State, Josh poured in 20 second-half points to nail down a victory that put Wake in first place in the ACC. Later he sunk the Wolfpack with clutch free throws to clinch the regular-season title. It marked the first time in over 40 years the Demon Deacons had won the league championship outright. Their overall record of 24-5 was their best since the Tim Duncan years, and nothing short of miraculous, with two freshman and two sophomores in the starting lineup. Josh, whose only weakness as a college player had been his shooting, surprised the league with a smooth stroke he’d developed over the summer. He used it to average 20.0 points, tops in the ACC. He also finished third in the league in rebounding, third in steals and fourth in blocks. A consensus pick for All-American, Josh was voted ACC Player of the Year.
The post-season, however, saw Wake’s bubble burst once again. The Deamon Deacons lost by four points to NC State in the semis of the ACC Tournament, but still managed a two seed in the NCAA draw. In the first round, East Tennessee State gave the Demon Deacons all they could handle, nearly upsetting them in a 76-73 nailbiter. Josh struggled so badly that Prosser benched him in the second half. But with Eric Williams pouring in 17 in the final 20 minutes, Wake hung in there. In the game's waning moments, the team looked to Josh, and he responded with a pair of free throws to help ice the victory.
Josh didn’t have it in the next round against Auburn, either, hitting just four of 10 shots from the field. The Demon Deacons kept the game close, but could not catch the Tigers, who won 69-62 to advance to the Sweet 16. The loss was difficult for Wake fans to swallow, but given the team's lack of expereince, a 25-win season was a remarkable accomplishment.
After fulfilling Nancy and Helen's dream by receiving his degree (in Religion) that May, Josh got to work getting ready for the NBA Draft. He auditioned for nine teams and attended the pre-draft camps in Chicago, and although some scouts were surprised with the depth of his game, Josh did not overwhelm anyone.
Octagon, his representation
firm, prepared him for the fact that he would not be a Top 10 pick—and
might go much lower. Underclassman Chris Bosh of Georgia Tech figured
to be the first ACC player to go (he was) and New Orleans figured to be
the first team to call Josh’s name (they weren’t). Minutes
turned to hours as the first round wore on, and Josh waited as patiently
as he could for his name to be called. When Duke’s Dahntay Jones
was selected before Josh, he really became concerned.
He was also growing angry. Being a four-year player seemed to be working against him, as NBA teams were infatuated with high schoolers and European players. At 23, Josh was viewed by many as having reached his ceiling. Finally, the Mavericks, with the final pick of the first round, selected Josh. Assuming he would be unavailable when they picked, Dallas had not even bothered to work Josh out. He cried when he heard the news. It was a moment of great pride—and relief.
Josh joined a club with a shot at going deep into the playoffs, which generally means serious bench time for such a late pick. In addition, coach Don Nelson was not historically a fan of playing rookies in crucial situations. But the Mavs lacked a defensive stopper—specifically, a man who could take an opponent’s high-scoring two-guard or small forward—and Josh quickly stepped into this role. His enthusiasm for rebounding also won him extra PT.
Josh's minutes increased further after center Erick Dampier went down. The Mavs had been stressing team defense with the mobile big man patrolling the paint, but with his loss, the pressure to shut down the league's top scorers became more of a man-to-man job. In one three-game span in February, Josh matched up on Corey Maggette, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. They torched the rookie for 106 points.
The big break came for Josh when Michael Finley went down early in the year and he was inserted into the starting lineup. Nelson kept his rookie on the floor for 30-plus minutes a game during Finley’s convalescence, which enabled Josh to nail down a prominent role with Dallas. When Finley returned, Josh was slotted as the team's the sixth man and occasional starter, helping the Mavs to a record of 52-30.
With Dallas boasting a ton of offensive firepower—led by the versatile scoring of Dirk Nowitzki—Josh often found himself open for medium-range jumpers, as opponents figured he was the least of all evils. Sometimes he stopped and popped, and sometimes he passed. He shot 43 percent from the floor, an encouraging number that left room to improve.
Josh missed a few games to injury (a right groin, right ankle and right hamstring kept him out of 15 contests), but completed his rookie season averaging 8.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.0 steals in just under 24 minutes a game. One of his best efforts was a 17-point game against the New York Knicks in February, when he had four steals and three blocks. Other highlights included a 19-point/12-rebound performance against the Orlando Magic in March, and another 19-point night against the Cleveland Cavaliers two days later.
The Mavs entered the playoffs against a familiar foe, the Kings, hoping to make a run at the Western Conference crown. But Sacramento ambushed them with a balanced attack, sending Dallas home in five games. The Kings took the decider 119-118 when a Nowitzki jumper clanged off the rim at the buzzer.
Instead of earning an expanded role with the Mavericks in 2004-05, Josh entered training camp with an understanding that he would be moved down the depth chart. Nelson had three players ahead of him—Finley, Jerry Stackhouse and Marquis Daniels. Finley would be the starter at small forward, another the sixth man, and the third would be in the rotation. That left Josh out of the picture.
Josh accepted his role and said all the right things to the press. Privately, he vowed to be an impact player whenever he hit the hardwood, and to make it as hard as possible for Nelson to keep him on the bench. When Finley, Daniels and Stackhouse all missed games because of injuries, Josh worked his way up the ladder. His aggressive style also landed him on the trainer’s table, but he was young and gritty enough to stay in uniform.
By the season's second
half, Josh was starting as many games as he sat. His minutes were almost
50 percent over his rookie year, and his defensive presence was a big
reason the Mavs—despite losing point guard Steve Nash and being
wracked by injuries—were on their wat to yet another 50-win season.
When Stackhouse returned from one of his trips to the injured list, Josh
stayed in the starting lineup, with Finley taking over one of the guard
The biggest thing to happen to Josh during the 04-05 season was the unexpected retirement of Nelson in March and the sudden ascension of Avery Johnson to coach. Johnson had actually started the year as a player until Nelson convinced him to be his assistant on the Dallas bench. In his new role, Johnson challenged the Mavs to throw their weight around and lose the label they had around the league as a soft team. He was also willing to pull any player at any time—including Nowitzki—if he felt he wasn’t giving 100 percent on defense. The Mavs went 16-2 in Johnson’s 18 games at the helm, and roared into the playoffs with a 58-24 record.
The Mavs' post-season run was almost derailed before it started, as the Rockets took the first two games in round one in Dallas. Josh was one of the few Mavericks pulling his weight, averaging 17 points and nine rebounds in the pair of losses. When the series moved to Houston, it appeared to be more of the same, with the Rockets building a comfortable lead midway through the third quarter of Game 3. That's when the Mavs finally woke up. With Nowitzki and Stackhouse leading the charge, Dallas rallied for 106-102 victory. Re-energizied, they pushed the Rockets to a decisive Game 7, which they won in a laugher. Josh enjoyed his best game of the playoffs in the rout, posting 21 points, 11 rebounded and four blocks.
Next up were Nash and the Suns. The Phoenix point guard felt he had something to prove to his old team, and played one of the most remarkable series in recent history. When Dallas made the mistake of trying to run with the young Suns, they paid the price, bowing out in six games. Nash went for 48 points in Game 4, registered a triple-double in Game 5 and finished off the Mavs with a 39-point, 12-assist effort in Game 6. Dallas simply had no one who could guard him, not even Josh.
Still, Josh turned what was billed as a “learning” year into an education for the rest of the NBA. He hit on 46.7% of his shots and averaged more than 12 points a game in just over 30 minutes a night. He hauled down six rebounds, nabbed 1.5 steals, and garnered the respect of opponents (and officials) for his tenacious D. In the post-season, Josh upped his scoring, was more of a force on the boards, and continued to wreak havoc on the defensive end.
His play all year
long enabled Dallas to use its veteran scorers more judiciously, and his
ability to sub in at power forward helped Nowitzki fill lin at center
when injuries claimed the Mavs’ best pivot players. In other words,
the stats Josh “produced” didn’t always show up in the
is proving to be Johnson’s type of player. Of course, what coach wouldn't
love him. He's hardworking, humble and committed to the team concept. And
his mother and grandmother couldn't be any prouder of him.
10 to 15 points a night in the NBA may not seem like a major accomplishment,
but try doing it sometime when your team does not run a single play for
you. Try it when your primary job is to shut down the other team’s
best player. And try to get the ball when four other double-digit scorers
are fighting over it. This is Josh’s world. Yet every night, he puts
numbers in every stat category, from assists to steals, to rebounds to points.
The same fundamental quality that made Josh a great college player has enabled him to distinguish himself in the pros: He never stands still. On offense, he is always moving, always anticipating, always drawing attention away from teammates—or getting open when his teammates are under scrutiny. He maneuvers his 210-pound frame into rebounding position against power forwards and centers, and D’s up night after night against the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Once an afterthought in opponents’ game plans against the Mavs, Josh is learning how to create some interesting problems on offense. He works tirelessly on his mid-range jumper, knowing that is where he is most likely to find the ball in is hands. Defenses tend to collapse around Dallas’s high-profile scorers, leaving Josh with some potentially open looks. It will be interesting how he develops this part of his game.
The referees are blowing the whistle less often on Josh, but he still gets into streaks where he commits several quick fouls. After cooling off on the bench, he sometimes is timid upon his return. NBA scorers pick up on this in an instant, and most of Josh’s bad games come in these situations. This should change as he gains more experience.
In an NBA dominated
by chest-pounding youngsters, Josh is an interesting diversion. He is
a hungry player who takes great pride in his accomplishments, wants more
minutes, and is always looking for a way to shift a game’s momentum.
At the same time, he respects the game and the people in it.
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