USA TODAY Sports
Al Horford is one of the most open and candid players in the NBA, and last Thursday I was able to have a one-on-one conversation with him about the development of his game over the past six years, his busy summer, and the recent changes to his approach.
Two-time All-Star Al Horford has been, along with Josh Smith, the constant in the Hawks locker room since being drafted in 2007. Six years into his career, Horford has become a fan favorite in Atlanta due to his workman-like effort on the court and in practice, sweet shooting touch, and calm demeanor opposite the occasionally volatile Smith. After missing a majority of the season last year with a torn pectoral muscle, Horford returned in Game 4 of the Hawks opening round matchup with the Celtics and played valiantly, but was clearly not 100% (he's been very open in admitting as much).
This season, Horford has experienced ups and downs. He started the year well in the first few games, but his offensive production and shooting efficiency dropped off dramatically for much of the first two months of the season. As I wrote about at length previously, Al's shooting numbers, especially from the midrange, have been down this season, but lately he has begun to bring those numbers back to his average.
I had the opportunity to pull Al aside after practice last week (Thursday between the Hornets and Pistons games) and, as he always does, Al very graciously and candidly discussed his early season struggles, how he developed his game, players he's looked up to, and the changes he has made in his approach on offense.
Looking at the development of your game, it reminds me somewhat of [Tim] Duncan's, coming up was he a guy you modeled your game after and who were guys you looked up to as a young player?
There's a lot of guys I've looked up to, but I don't think I've necessarily modeled my game after anyone. Duncan was one of those guys I looked up to, like Hakeem, Shaq, Charles Barkley, those were all guys I looked up to and see how they played and respected their games, but for me, I think I have a little bit of everything. I think one of my strengths is being able to use my quickness and my speed getting up and down the floor as a big man. So I think that's one of the things that separates me from a lot of other guys.
I know a lot of guys have gone to "big-man camps" and worked with Hakeem or [Patrick] Ewing or others. Have you ever done something like that?
You know I've always kind of wanted to, but I've never had the time in the summer; whether it's playing with the national team or doing something that would have impeded me from doing one, but in the future I might look at doing something like that. I think it can only help my game.
What's the thing you feel you've improved most over your career, is it your post-game, your defense, is there something you point to that's elevated you to an All-Star level?
Yeah, I think that defense for sure has to be one of them. Understanding angles and positioning on the floor has helped me a lot, and made it a lot easier for me. And then, shooting the ball wise, I think coming into the NBA I could shoot okay, but I think now I feel I'm a lot better and I'm more confident and feel that I can get even better. So that's one of the things that, night-and-day, I can notice I've improved on.
We talked [after the Pacers game] about how you found something in the film with your shot. Do you feel like, after these last three games, you're getting back into rhythm?
Um, yeah, I think one of the things is teams are playing me differently than they have in the past. People are aware that I can shoot the midrange shot and things like that so I feel like I'm getting more contested and challenged shots. I think now, I'm starting to figure out when I'm supposed to shoot it and pass it and things like that so it's been easier for me.
You've talked a little bit about how you thought you came back a little quick from the injury for the playoffs last year. Do you think going from the playoffs and jumping in with the Dominican team might have contributed a little bit to the shooting issues you had earlier in the season?
I'm not sure. Obviously, I probably rushed [coming back], like we've talked about, but I think one of the things that helped me was that I didn't miss a full basketball season. So I think it was good for me to actually play in those games. I don't think it had anything to do with the shooting. It was more of the way teams have been playing me. I've seen it on film, like before, I was getting a lot of open, just plain shots. This year people are coming out and contesting and it's different, but now I'm to the point, one of the things I was talking to the coaches about is, when I catch-and-shoot my percentages are really high. When I catch and hold the ball, and try to pass and then I shoot my percentages go way down. So what the coaches have been saying is when you catch you're either shooting the ball, or you're passing it or doing something with it. I feel like if I stand still and drag, that's when my percentages tend to go down, so the key for me is just to shoot it right away.
I've noticed this year you do more of that quick pump and then drive, is that one of those things you've worked on this year now that guys are contesting?
Yeah, with our coaches here, I work on that as much as I can. They're the ones that have really instilled that in my game. They're like, ‘you gotta do that, you gotta do that,' and I've made a conscious effort doing that, and because of the practice, I feel more comfortable doing that now.