Howell dominating boards for N.C. State

Wheeler High graduate Richard Howell leads the ACC with 10.9 per game as a senior at N.C. State.

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Wheeler High graduate Richard Howell leads the ACC with 10.9 per game as a senior at N.C. State.

The funny thing about rebounds — anybody on a basketball court can get one, just by being in the right place at the right time. Ball bounces off the rim, and it’s a matter of geography. Right?

But to be a really good rebounder, to be called “a beast” by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, it’s about going after the ball.

Wheeler High graduate Richard Howell has embodied that, both in his rebounding total — he leads the ACC with 10.9 per game as a senior at N.C. State — and in his career.

“He has great hands, and he’s got a great feel for how to rebound,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “But I think more than anything, it comes down to having the tools but also having the desire. I think he’s got both.”

The standout power forward has dedicated himself to a skill that’s rooted in effort, and even for some of the best at it, is an acquired taste.

Howell fashions himself more of a small forward in a big man’s body. He’s been known to drive his teammates crazy, shouting out “Melo” with every jump shot he makes in practice, in reference to his favorite player growing up, New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony.

“I just had to fall into the place where they wanted me and needed me the most, which was on the block,” Howell said. “I was comfortable with it because I’d played there, but at the same time it definitely wasn’t my style of play. I did it for my teammates, and I’m going to continue to do it.”

As a middle schooler in Lawrenceville, Howell’s favorite sport was football. He loved NFL running backs Corey Dillon and Marshall Faulk. He played halfback in the wishbone for his middle school team and even thought he had the kind of arm that should get him a shot at quarterback.

But growing into a 6-foot-8 frame, and an admittedly chubby kid, Howell wound up at defensive end, so he was not for long for football.

At Wheeler, coach Doug Lipscomb gave him the freedom to handle the ball and shoot outside. And when Sidney Lowe first recruited him to N.C. State, Howell said the Wolfpack planned to use him some at small forward.

But on arrival he was put strictly in the post. Looking back, he said that was probably his own doing.

“When I got here I was a little bit overweight, so that kind of forced me,” Howell said. “I still had all the ball skills, but just my weight alone and my foot speed forced me to play in the post.”

Too many trips to Bojangles and down the candy aisle.

“My favorite candy is Swedish fish and sour-patch kids,” Howell said. “I was just killing the Skittles. All the stuff you’re not supposed to eat, that was my favorite food.”

He knew it, but didn’t do much about it until Gottfried took over after Howell’s sophomore season. With a push from Gottfried and strength-and-conditioning coach Bob Alejo, Howell got in shape. He weighed 270 as a freshman. He’s now at 246.

“They knew what to do,” Howell said of Gottfried and Alejo. “All I had to do was listen.”

He said he thought about his daughter Milani, now 3, who lives in Atlanta with her mother.

“Basketball can definitely be a great way to take care of her and her future,” Howell said. “… It came down to simply if I want to play at the next level, I had to get my body in shape. If I wanted to help my team, and not only my team, but help myself, I knew that I had to get in shape.”

Howell cut out the junk food, substituted grilled chicken for fried and now only on an occasional off-day will eat a bag of Swedish fish on his way to class.

He’s seen the results on his waist line and stat line. He leads the ACC in double-doubles with 13. He has averaged 30.8 minutes per game, up from 27.0 in a foul-plagued junior season. He broke a streak of nine consecutive double-digit rebound games with eight in Saturday’s loss to Miami.

Howell has averaged 12.8 points per game to go with his 10.9 rebounds, which is just ahead of Mason Plumlee (10.8), Duke’s national player-of-the-year candidate.

Howell made a believer out of Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils host N.C. State on Thursday night, when he got 18 rebounds in a win over then-No. 1 Duke on Jan. 12.

Fourteen of those rebounds came in the second half, after Gottfried asked in a timeout if anyone besides Howell was going to get a rebound and Howell replied: “Don’t worry, coach. I’ve got them all.”

“He’s one of the most unique players in the country,” Krzyzewski said after that game. “He’s a kid that every team would want to start and be so easy to play with. He doesn’t need the ball long. He plays with a lot of maturity. He rebounds the heck out of the ball. He has such a good demeanor. He never has a scowl on his face. He never gets frazzled.”

Every once in a while, Howell still might scream out “Melo” — “If I make a Melo move on the baseline, crossover, pull-up jump shot,” Howell said. He’s got a new name he’ll throw out from time to time as well: Dennis Rodman, one of the NBA’s all-time great rebounders.

“A big key (to rebounding) is just wanting the ball and if you want it more than your opponent,” Howell said. “Whatever it takes, you go that limit and you still get the ball.”