Before he was drafted in 2004, Howard said that he wanted to use his NBA career and Christian faith to "raise the name of God within the league and throughout the world". In November 2009, he was named one of the 10 finalists for the Jefferson Awards for Public Service, which awards athletes for their charitable work.
Howard was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to Dwight, Sr. and Sheryl Howard, and into a family with strong athletic connections. His father is a Georgia State Trooper and serves as Athletic Director of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, a private academy with one of the best high school basketball programs in the country, while his mother played on the inaugural women's basketball team at Morris Brown College. Howard's mother had seven miscarriages before he was born. A devout Christian since his youth, Howard became serious about basketball around the age of nine; when in the eighth grade, he resolved to be selected as the number one pick in the NBA Draft one day. Despite his large frame, Howard was quick and versatile enough to play the guard position. He elected to attend Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy for high school, and in his four years he played mostly as power forward, averaging 16.6 points per game (ppg), 13.4 rebounds per game (rpg) and 6.3 blocks per game in 129 appearances. As a senior, Howard led his team to the 2004 state title. He averaged 25 points, 18 rebounds, 8.1 blocks and 3.5 assists per game. That same year, Howard was widely recognized as the best American high school basketball player, and he was awarded the Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award, the Morgan Wootten High School Player of the Year Award, Gatorade National Player of the Year and the McDonald's National High School Player of the Year honor. He was also co-MVP (with J. R. Smith) of the McDonald's High School All-American Game that year. On January 31, 2012, Howard was also honored as one of the 35 greatest McDonald's All-Americans.
Orlando Magic (2004–2012) Early years (2004–2007) Following his high school successes, Howard chose to forego college and declared for the 2004 NBA Draft—a decision partly inspired by his idol Kevin Garnett who had done the same in 1995—where the Orlando Magic selected him first overall over UConn junior Emeka Okafor. He took the number 12 for his jersey, in part because it was the reverse of Garnett's 21 when he played for Minnesota. Howard joined a depleted Magic squad that had finished with only 21 victories the previous season; further, the club had just lost perennial NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady. Howard, however, made an immediate impact. He finished his rookie season with an average of 12.0 ppg and 10.0 rpg, setting several NBA records in the process. He became the youngest player in NBA history to average a double double in the regular season. He also became the youngest player in NBA history to average at least 10 rebounds in a season and youngest NBA player ever to record at least 20 rebounds in a game. Howard's importance to the Magic was highlighted when he became the first player in NBA history directly out of high school to start all 82 games during his rookie season. For his efforts, he was selected to play in the 2005 NBA Rookie Challenge, and was unanimously selected to the All-Rookie Team. He also finished third to fellow center Emeka Okafor of the Charlotte Bobcats and guard Ben Gordon of the Chicago Bulls for the Rookie of the Year award.
Howard reported to camp for his second NBA campaign having added 20 pounds of muscle during the off-season. Orlando coach Brian Hill—responsible for grooming former Magic superstar Shaquille O'Neal—decided that Howard should be converted into a full-fledged center. Hill identified two areas where Howard needed to improve: his post-up game, and his defense. He exerted extra pressure on Howard, saying that the Magic would need him to emerge as a force in the middle before the team had a chance at the playoffs. Even though the big man played tentatively at times, he was able to build on his strong rookie year with an impressive sophomore season. On November 15, 2005, in a home game against the Charlotte Bobcats, Howard scored 21 points and 20 rebounds, becoming the youngest player ever to score 20 or more points and gather 20 or more rebounds in the same game. He was selected to play on the Sophomore Team in the 2006 Rookie Challenge during the All-Star break, and on April 15, 2006, he recorded a career-high 26 rebounds against the Philadelphia 76ers his 28 points in that game also brought him close to an NBA rarity, a 30–30 game. Overall, he averaged 15.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, ranking second in the NBA in rebounds per game, offensive rebounds, and double doubles; and sixth in field goal percentage. Despite Howard's improvement, the Magic finished the season with a 36–46 win-loss record and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the second consecutive season since Howard's arrival.
Howard took another step forward as the franchise player for Orlando in the 2006–07 season, and for the third consecutive season he played in all 82 regular season games. On February 1, 2007, he received his first NBA All-Star selection as a reserve on the Eastern Conference squad for the 2007 NBA All-Star Game. Howard finished the game with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Less than a week later, he recorded a career-high 32 points against the Toronto Raptors. A highlight was his game-winning alley-oop off an inbound pass at the buzzer against the San Antonio Spurs at Amway Arena on February 9. As the push for playoff spots intensified, Howard was instrumental, recording another career-high 35 points against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 14, 2007. Under his leadership, the Magic qualified for the 2007 NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2003 as the number eight seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the Magic were swept by the eventual Eastern Conference finalist Detroit Pistons in the first round. Howard averaged 17.6 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, and finished first in the NBA in total rebounds, second in field goal percentage, and ninth in blocks. He was further recognized as one of the best players in the league when he was named to the All-NBA Third Team at the end of the 2006–07 campaign.
Leader of consecutive division champions (2007–2010)
Howard continued posting impressive numbers in the 2007–08 season; with free agent Rashard Lewis added to the ranks alongside Hedo Türkoğlu to provide an extra offensive spark, this was the Magic's best season yet. Howard's strong and consistent play ensured that he was named as a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and by the time the mid-season break arrived, he was leading the league in double doubles (he concluded the season with a league-high 69) and had recorded 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game on five occasions (eight by the season's end). On February 16, 2008, he won the 2008 NBA slam dunk contest by receiving 78% of the fan's votes via text messaging or online voting; in that contest, he performed a series of innovative dunks said to have rejuvenated the contest, including donning a Superman cape for one of the dunks. Howard led the Magic to their first division title in 12 years and to the third seed for the 2008 NBA Playoffs, and in the first-round match-up against the Toronto Raptors, Howard's dominance (three 20 point/20 rebound games) and point guard Jamir lew's strong play ensured that Orlando prevailed over five games. Howard's series total of 91 rebounds was also greater than the total rebounds collected by the entire Toronto frontcourt. In the next round against the Pistons, the Magic lost the first two road games before Howard's 20 point/12 rebound performance in Game 3 salvaged a home win.[ In that same week, the center was named to the All-NBA First Team for the first time, and subsequently, the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. Detroit played without their star point guard Chauncey Billups for Games 4 and 5, but Orlando was unable to capitalize on that and lost the series 4–1 to the veteran playoffs team.
Los Angeles Lakers (2012–2013)
On August 10, 2012, Howard was traded from Orlando to the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal that also involved the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets. The Lakers also received Chris Duhon and Earl Clark; Magic received Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, and draft picks; Philadelphia received Jason Richardson and Andrew Bynum; and Denver received Andre Iguodala.
Howard took six months off from basketball after his April surgery, and only had the combined four weeks of training camp and preseason to prepare for the season. He played in just two preseason games, but was able to play in the 2012–13 season opener against the Dallas Mavericks. He had 19 points and 10 rebounds, but he was only 3-for-14 on free throws and fouled out; the Lakers lost 99–91. Still working himself into shape, Howard paced himself throughout the season on both offense and defense. On January 4, 2013, Howard injured his right shoulder in the second half of the Lakers' 107–102 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers when he got his arms tangled up with Caron Butler. He played through the injury in the next game against the Denver Nuggets, a 112–105 loss in which he tied a career high with 26 rebounds. However, he missed the next three games with a torn labrum. At the midpoint of the season, the Lakers were a disappointing 17–24. Howard had not been consistently dominant on defense, and was at times passive on offense. He was averaging 17.1 points on 58.2% shooting, 12.3 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks, but also 3.6 fouls a game with 3.2 turnovers while making only 50.4% of his free throws. The Los Angeles Times criticized his "ability to laugh off missed throws".
Many times Howard was upset that he was not getting the ball enough, and he felt that Kobe Bryant was shooting too much. Moving forward, Howard said he needed to "bring it" and dominate in more ways than just scoring. In the following game against Memphis, he had only two points and four rebounds in 14 minutes before he sat out the rest of the game after aggravating his shoulder injury. He returned the following game showing no ill effects from the injury. On January 30, Howard left the Phoenix Suns game early after re-aggravating his shoulder. He was listed as day to day and missed subsequent games. Bryant said that Howard "worries too much" and "doesn't want to let anyone down", and urged him to play through the pain when Pau Gasol was sidelined with a torn plantar fascia. Howard returned the next game after commenting that Bryant was "not a doctor, I'm not a doctor. That's his opinion."