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Old 05-09-06, 01:09 AM
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Josh Howard: The One Who Got Away From The Spurs

Buck Harvey: Wake mistake — Spurs face a rare, wrong choice

Web Posted: 05/09/2006 12:00 AM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

They've been the model of scouting. Of vision. Of luck.

That's why a Spurs mistake is glaring now, and it could come into view as early as tonight. Just as someone from Wake Forest decided the first game of the Spurs-Mavericks series, another could decide the second.

Meet Josh Howard.

The One Who Got Away.

Howard is unaware he got away from anyone. He says he's never heard of the angst in San Antonio.

This goes back a few years. Tim Duncan was at Wake at the time, schooling collegians as he did the Dallas 7-footers on Sunday. Watching from the stands, just a skinny kid, was a Winston-Salem native.

Howard said he met Duncan once in those days. But mostly, he admired Duncan from afar, and for good reason. Howard was a high-school post player, and he wanted to learn Duncan's footwork.

Years passed. Duncan went to San Antonio, Howard followed him to Wake. Howard stayed in school for four years, just as Duncan did, and his senior year, he was the first unanimous ACC player of the year since David Thompson in 1975.

Yes, that means Duncan was not.

Howard seemingly did everything well. Pro scouts liked the 6-foot-7 package, though most saw Howard falling toward the bottom of the LeBron-Carmelo-Wade first round. Several mock drafts, coincidentally, predicted the Spurs would take him.

"Howard is a versatile scorer at small forward," a West Coast newspaper wrote then, "who could complement defensive specialist Bruce Bowen."

The Spurs understood as much. But the two prospects who intrigued them more were Boris Diaw, Tony Parker's buddy who stars now for Phoenix, and Ndudi Ebi, a high-school project out of Houston who has since failed.

Howard? The Spurs were less fixated on him than they were creating cap room to sign Jason Kidd. Howard still earns less than a million dollars, making him the kind of bargain that Parker and Manu Ginobili once were. But unsure what the salary cap would be that summer, the Spurs wanted to free every dollar for Kidd.

In hindsight, the Kidd plan was as erroneous as the Spurs' analysis of Howard. They saw Howard as a slasher, and they already had one in Ginobili. Didn't they really need shooters to spread the floor for Duncan?

Even after coming up with a find with the 28th selection just two years before (Parker), they still didn't like the odds with another No.28. When Diaw and Ebi went off the board, the Spurs traded that first-round choice to the Suns for one in the future.

Gregg Popovich signed off on it with only one reservation. He knew Duncan liked Howard.

Then Dallas, drafting next, took Howard, and Popovich quickly second-guessed everything. Having just edged the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, had the Spurs helped their rivals?

They have. But a lot of other teams missed then, too. If the 2003 draft were held again, Howard would go as high as fifth.

Weighed against the Spurs' body of work, guessing wrong at No.28 should be forgivable. It happens. Besides, luck matters as much as homework late in the draft, and even the Spurs' successes show that.

If the Spurs really knew what Ginobili would become, why did they wait until No.57 to take him? They took someone else in 1999, with a draft-day trade, at No.40.

But logic doesn't change what has followed. Howard has become the Mavericks' second-best player, as well as someone who would fit beautifully next to Parker and Ginobili.

Howard isn't without flaws. He's not much of a passer, and Sunday showed that. He finished without an assist, as well as a season high in turnovers.

His defensive reputation, too, comes with an asterisk. He's a high-energy gambler, not a stopper as Bowen is. Dallas will often put him on Bowen instead of Ginobili, for example.

Still, he can rebound and score and fill the cracks that his teammates leave behind. Sometimes that means he gets lost among the Mavericks' shooters, but he can change games just doing that.

Howard almost did Sunday; he led the Mavericks at halftime in scoring. So tonight he comes back for another chance, as the rare Spurs' mistake.

As the One Who Got Away.
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