It's not a sign of disrespect -- one thing you learn immediately about Washington Bullets rookie Juwan Howard is that he's respectful of those around him. It's just that before a game, while other players are in the locker room occasionally sharing little tidbits with reporters, don't expect Howard to join in.
Should you try, you'll have to get Howard to pull off his stereo headphones, which often are pulsating with the rap sounds of Scarface, Snoop Doggy Dog or Warren G.
"After the game," will generally be his response for pre-game interview requests.
"All guys have their own way of approaching a game, and mine is totally business," Howard said. "When I approach a game, I go in with my briefcase like I'm going in for a meeting to sign a big record contract, or whatever. I don't try to be different. I don't try to set a trend. I've always been that way."
It was that businesslike approach that in part led to Howard's often bitter holdout at the beginning of the season. Bullets general manager John Nash was not ready to agree to the contract that Howard and agent David Falk requested, not for a player who wasn't expected to start.
But a multitude of injuries has forced Howard into a starting role. And even Nash will admit that the fifth pick of last year's draft is turning out to be a better player than anybody had dreamed. In his 17 games as a starter, Howard is averaging 17.0 points and 9.7 rebounds and was the only steady player during the Bullets' recent 10-game losing streak.
"He's done a remarkable job," Nash said."He's shown a determination and willingness to be a leader, and I'm proud of him. His play is being noted by people around the NBA."
Indeed it has, with a long list of those singing his praises:
* "Juwan is a real tough player," said New Jersey Nets forward Derrick Coleman, after Howard scored a career-high 27 points in Washington's road victory Sunday.
* "Juwan Howard's going to be a star in this league," Pacers coach Larry Brown said after Howard scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds at Indiana on Jan. 4. "He has a polished game for a rookie. He's sensational."
* "I thought Juwan played real well offensively and defensively," Orlando coach Bob Hill said after Howard had 24 points and 14 rebounds against the Magic on Dec. 26. "He's going to be an outstanding NBA player."
The praise is impressive. And sincere. But the comments, at least to Howard, are no big surprise.
"I don't get intimidated at all -- and I'm not saying that just to be saying it, I'm saying it with confidence," Howard said. "I approach every game with a fight and attitude that I want to win. I don't care who I'm playing against."
Chances are people haven't seen too many Howard highlights on "SportsCenter." That's because you won't find Howard blowing kisses into the courtside television cameras. Or getting in an opponent's face after a big play. Or posing after dunks.
Instead, he plays a game that's appreciated by basketball purists. On the inside, he has mastered a short jump hook. Overplay that, and he'll show you his drop-step move. If you push him off the blocks, he'll go out to 15 feet and shoot his flat, unorthodox jumper. And if you double him, he has developed an ability to hit the open man.
"I'm not a crowd pleaser," Howard said. "I don't try to go out and do all the 360-degree dunks, the no-look passes or the crossover dribbles. I just try to do the basic things that win games."
It's a long way from his pro debut on Nov. 19, when his first shot -- a baseline jumper -- was blocked by Boston Celtics forward Dino Radja. The 10 points and 11 rebounds that night were impressive, but the games that followed were somewhat of a struggle for Howard.
"The first game I was totally unaware of what was going on out there," Howard said.
So fellow rookie Anthony Tucker got a crack at the starting lineup before Howard. But injuries to Howard's former Michigan teammate Chris Webber, Don MacLean and Kevin Duckworth led to an increase in playing time, and later a starting role. And Howard's game has blossomed.
"He's been there every night," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "If he doesn't make half his shots, he makes one less than half. He gets you eight to 10 rebounds every night."
Added teammate Scott Skiles: "We've been going to him in the low post, and good things have happened. I noticed from his days at Michigan that he's very fundamentally sound. You don't find a lot of rookies like that, particularly big guys. He's a little more mature and grounded than most rookies."
Howard has taken note of the growing confidence that his coach and teammates have in him.
"We've had some injuries, and there's been some opportunities for others to step up -- and one of them has been me," Howard said. "What's helped me get more confidence is the other players. They're coming to me down the stretch, and that puts a smile on my face. That lets me know they want to win, and they're putting it in my hands."
That maturation process should make the Bullets an even better team when Webber and MacLean return.
"The coaches and teammates are now seeing what Juwan Howard can do and bring to this organization," Howard said. "[Playing time] has made me more comfortable out there, and has made me feel like a veteran. I just hope it continues."
Opponent: Golden State Warriors
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
TV/Radio: None; WTEM (570 AM), WWLG (1360 AM)
Outlook: This is the first game back for F Tom Gugliotta since the trade in November. Gugliotta had his best game of the season on Tuesday with 27 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to New Jersey. The Warriors have been hit hard by injuries, and have lost 10 of their past 12 games. The Bullets look to extend their win streak to three games, which would be their longest of the season. C Kevin Duckworth (sore Achilles' tendon) said he anticipates playing tonight. G Scott Skiles, who is hitting 94.2 percent from the free-throw line, has moved ahead of Calvin Murphy into third place on the all-time list behind Mark Price and Rick Barry.
HOWARD'S ALL-STAR MATCHUPS
In his 17 games as a starter, Washington Bullets rookie forward Juwan Howard has matched up against four players who were selected to last year's All-Star Game. Here's how Howard has matched up:
Date/Opponent ............ Matchup ....... Pts. ... Reb.
Dec. 19 ................. Howard vs. ...... 22 ..... 10
Phoenix ....... ........ Charles Barkley*.. 19 ..... 13
Dec. 26 ....... ......... Howard vs. ...... 24 ..... 14
Orlando ....... ........ Horace Grant ..... 10 ..... 12
Jan. 3 ........ ......... Howard vs. ...... 10 ...... 6
Seattle SuperSonics ..... Shawn Kemp ...... 10 ...... 8
Jan. 22 ................. Howard vs. ...... 27 ...... 6
New Jersey Nets ....... Derrick Coleman ... 23 ...... 9
*-Barkley was selected but did not play in the All-Star Game because of injury.