Magic found no reason not to pick Howard first

? Orlando general manager John Weisbrod asked his assistants the night before the NBA draft why the Magic should not pick Dwight Howard.

The high school senior, with stellar predraft interviews, had edged past Connecticut All-America Emeka Okafor atop the Magic’s wish list. Now Weisbrod, wary of wasting the No. 1 pick on a mirage, was playing devil’s advocate.

Howard, at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, has impressive physical skills, but will he try to get by on those alone? Why won’t the glitter and glamour of the NBA lifestyle ruin the 18-year-old? How long will his development take? But the coaches and scouts never wavered under the questioning, and Thursday night’s draft reflected their certainty.

“They picked the best person for the job,” a confident Howard said Friday during his postdraft visit to Orlando. Moments earlier, he was smiling through braces while holding up a jersey bearing No. 12.

By choosing potential over experience, Weisbrod is taking a risk in trying to rebuild after last season’s 21-61 disaster. He acknowledges Okafor will give more help next year to the Charlotte Bobcats, who picked second, than Howard will help the Magic — but 2004-05 isn’t the point.

“There was a national consensus, ‘The Magic are so bad, they have to take the guy who’s more proven, established and NBA ready,'” Weisbrod said. “I was aware of that, but I really didn’t let myself fall into that thinking.

“When you come into a draft, you’re addressing the needs of your team, but when you have the No. 1 pick, your responsibility is to pick the best player.”

The Magic traded for another first-round pick Thursday, acquiring Saint Joseph’s point guard Jameer Nelson from Denver. Nelson, selected 20th, played four seasons with the Hawks, earning consensus national player of the year honors as a senior.

Orlando coach Johnny Davis speculated that many pundits believed Okafor to be better than Howard simply because of exposure. There were three years of competition in the TV-friendly Big East for Connecticut as well as a lengthy tournament run capped by the national championship.

“Maybe it’s the known versus the unknown,” Davis said. “But when I sat down with (Howard), when I viewed his tapes and then watched him work out, I came away thinking, ‘Wow, this young man has the whole package.'”

With the Magic pinning their hopes on a prep phenom rather than a polished collegian, it’s clearer than ever All-Star Tracy McGrady is gone. Orlando’s disgruntled superstar has said he’s unwilling to wait out another rebuilding project, and the drafting of Howard is a commitment to the future.

“I can’t conceive of any scenario with Tracy, whether he was staying or not staying, that would’ve made this different,” Weisbrod said. “This is who we were going to pick, regardless of any Tracy factor.”

Even more telling is that Weisbrod’s first postdraft call was not to McGrady but to Steve Francis — the Houston guard prominently mentioned in trade talks.

Weisbrod said his conversation with Francis was productive, with each man expressing respect for the other’s work. Even Francis’ scuffle with Phoenix’s Amare Stoudemire in March drew praise.

“I think he’s stubborn, I think he’s competitive, and I think he likes to win,” Weisbrod said.