New Sixers forward-center Al Horford has proven to be the ultimate teammate
Horford, entering his 13th NBA season and his first with the 76ers, has been a team-first guy dating all the way to his college days at Florida.
BOSTON -- Jayson Tatum remembers coming into the NBA as a wide-eyed 19-year old after one season at Duke, a young player in much need of some veteran guidance.
For Tatum, now a third-year Boston Celtics forward who is considered a potential future All-Star, there was no better player, he says, to have as a teammate that first season than 33-year-old Al Horford, who will begin his first year with the 76ers after spending the last three seasons in Boston.
"I was the youngest guy on the team and Al was the vet and he helped me out with a lot of things on and off the court,” Tatum said on Thursday after a Celtics practice. “He was a great leader, he led by example, a true professional.”
Talk to anybody in the NBA -- former teammates, ex-coaches, current teammates -- or even people who neither coached nor played with Horford, and the responses are pretty much the same.
As much as the Sixers have acquired a five-time All-Star in the 6-foot-9 ¼, 240-pound Horford, they also have added one of the most quality people in the NBA.
“Al is obviously a great player, a great teammate, we were fortunate to win a lot of games and he had a large role in that the last three years,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I don’t think you will find anybody in here who will say a bad word about Al.”
That last line is especially true.
“He was an unbelievable teammate, always trying to make the right plays,” said former Celtics teammate Gordon Hayward.
Mike Scott, a key Sixers reserve, played with Horford in Atlanta. Horford spent his first nine NBA seasons with the Hawks before heading to Boston.
“Al is a great guy, he is a professional, a hard worker, has a great work ethic, knows the game and is a leader,” Scott said. “He is breaking down plays, stopping the defense [in practice] and talking to us about how to defend certain players.”
Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey has never coached Horford, but likely wishes he could.
“He is always one of those guys who is unassuming, all at once you forget about him, he hits a trail three, there is a pass, a defensive play [that he makes] and he is like an old security blanket, not flashy,” Casey said before Tuesday’s 106-86 preseason loss to the Sixers. “He reminds me a lot of Tim Duncan.”
That is quite a statement. Duncan is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, a 15-time All-Star, and five-time NBA champion.
While many often talk about being team players, Horford lives it.
“Sometimes he is too unselfish,” Scott said.
During his first 12 seasons, all of which had his team earn an NBA playoff berth, Horford has averaged 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.
“He can get 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] if he wanted to,” Scott said.
The thing about Horford is he doesn’t want to, unless on a given night that is what is needed.
One statistic that shows his selfless manner is that Horford has averaged just 11.3 shots per game.
Horford gives much credit to his college coach at the University of Florida, Billy Donovan, for emphasizing the importance of being a team player. Donovan is now the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
During his three-year career at Florida, Horford averaged just 10.3 points and 6.6 shots per game, but the Gators won consecutive national championships his final two years, in 2006 and 2007. He was then the No. 3 overall pick in the draft by Atlanta.
“That is one of the things coach Donovan instilled in me and made me understand that it was more about the team as opposed to individual numbers,” Horford said last week in an interview with The Inquirer.
Horford’s father Tito played in the NBA for three seasons and internationally for several years. The younger Horford says his father was a major influence.
“He is part of the reason why I got into basketball,” Horford said. “Following him around, growing up watching him play and being around a team setting, that always really excited me.”
Al Horford is known for his intelligence both on and off the court.
He came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in eighth grade, living in Michigan and knowing very little English at the time.
“It was a big change but something I knew was going to be best thing for me, making that transition and coming to the U.S.,” Horford said. “I always have been grateful for the opportunity being in this country and to develop my game and go to college.”
Horford will be the Sixers’ starting power forward and he will also back up Joel Embiid at center. One subject Horford feels uncomfortable discussing is his past success against Embiid.
Horford was the primary defender on Embiid when Boston eliminated the Sixers in five games during the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals.
While Embiid averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds in those five games, he shot just 44.1% from the field, including 23.8% from three-point range, while averaging 2.8 turnovers.
“I like to think of myself as detail-oriented,” Horford said. “For example, guarding Joel, it was always something where you would take the next challenge and really think the game.”
While a player has to have great physical ability to stay with Embiid, Horford has also enjoyed the mental aspect.
“I am really analytical about stuff, seeing how I can defend him, what angles I can do,” Horford said. “When you guard a guy like Joel, it is not always you, it is a team strategy.”
And then he adds, “I am glad I don’t have to guard him anymore.”
Horford is known as a quiet leader but Hayward said last year in Boston that changed to a degree.
“Generally, that is the case with him being a quiet leader but last year we needed his voice and he stepped up and it was good for us,” Hayward said.
His voice was often heard beyond the basketball court.
“My first year, I was new to fatherhood and he was always asking me if I was getting enough sleep and asking how things were at home, balancing the NBA with being a new father,” Tatum said. “Al was always helpful with things like that.”
Horford, who signed a four-year deal in July with the Sixers for $97 million that can be worth up to $109 million, is still looking for one thing to complete his resume -- an NBA championship. He said the were offers from other teams, but felt the Sixers could help him achieve his main goal.
“Obviously, I came to this team and there are the [championship] aspirations here,” Horford said. “It is where I feel I have a great opportunity to accomplish that. That is the reason I am here, trying to help bring the organization a championship to the city.”