Q+A: Al Horford riffs on team defense, post passing and playing with Josh Smith
Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry’s decision to liquidate the bloated contract of Joe Johnson for spare parts and expiring contracts last summer signaled a decisive change in the Hawks’ working doctrine. For years, it was enough to be quite good — a maxed-out middle playoff seed with no hopes for anything greater than some early-round chaos. But Ferry quickly shipped out Atlanta’s most known commodity, ushering in a year of transition. The Hawks would move from a Johnson-driven offense to one propelled by greater balance, from a salary logjam to a far cleaner cap sheet and from a stale product toward a hope for greater fortunes to come.
Essential to all of those endeavors was — and is — big man Al Horford, the fantastically versatile element that makes Atlanta’s entire operation go. He’s not as flashy as frontcourt teammate Josh Smith, but Horford reliably maintains good defensive position and works a complete offensive game without straining his skill set. He does it all (to the tune of 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game) for a team that needs quite a bit, and is in the midst of yet another outstanding, do-it-all year after recovering from a torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for most of last season.
SI.com had a chance to chat with Horford in conjunction with a joint charity project he is doing with Hampton Hotels and the Boys and Girls Club.
SI: You’ve played with Josh Smith and Jeff Teague for a few years now, but otherwise there’s been a lot of roster turnover and [Hawks coach] Larry Drew has been flipping around the lineup every other game or so. Has it been difficult for you at all to develop on-court chemistry with these new, rotating pieces?
Al Horford: It’s been challenging, if anything on the defensive end. We’ve all made it work. I think Coach Drew has handled adjustments well — he’s always willing to change and put in different lineups and try different things. And us as players, we’ve been rolling with it as well. It’s been a challenge, but we’ve made it work.
SI: Through all those challenges, you guys still rank 10th in defense this season, in large part because of what you and Josh Smith do on the back line. How is your defensive relationship with Josh and how do you feel like you both work in tandem relative to what Larry Drew asks of you?
AH: I think it’s a good relationship. Josh is back there coming off the help side — he’s great at blocking shots. And as an on-ball defender, especially on the perimeter, he’s really good. That’s kind of our job; I mean on the back line, I’m looking to help any of the guys if there’s any breakdown. If there’s anything that needs to be done, that’s what we’re kind of there for. We know each other’s games well enough so we know [that] if he needs help, I’m coming over, and if I need help, he’ll have my back.
SI: It seems like Josh would be a hard guy to anticipate on defense. He’s a dynamic athlete, but kind of all over the place — as you mentioned, in terms of help, especially. Is that a tricky situation for you to navigate in terms of knowing where and when to cover for him defensively?
AH: He’s a very versatile player, and when he’s out on the perimeter, he does a good job of containing his guy and everything. My whole thing is if he gets in a jam in the low post or something like that, that’s when I have to be ready to step in and help out — or help any of the guys. The whole thing is just to help each other on defense as much as we can.
SI: I saw that of all the NBA bigs who are playing major minutes, you average the lowest number of fouls per game. That’s an interesting turn. I remember in seasons past that you would get pulled after picking up a few quick fouls in the first quarter or first half. Have you had to make a conscious effort as your career has gone on to avoid picking up fouls? Or is this just a natural evolution of your game?
AH: I think it’s a little bit of both. Being injured last year really gave me a chance to look at the game and watch the guys play and just learn. I feel like I was able to learn a lot on how to avoid picking up cheap fouls, and a lot of those times you foul because you’re late on a rotation or something like that and you’re forced to [foul]. So I feel like it’s been with experience, but at the same time I have had some games this year where I get two quick fouls and I’m out. And usually, coach puts me back in and I’m able to finish out the half without another foul. Like you said, that probably just comes from that experience and me being able to watch and learn and just be more cautious of not fouling.
SI: You mentioned that your injury was a chance for you to go back and look at your game. What was that process like for you? Was it just a lot of watching film? Conferencing with coaches? What did you do last year that helped you build on your game?
AH: It was more just going to the games and just watching the team play. I think that you see the game so different when you’re in it and you’re doing things. I watch film of our games now all the time, but I think it’s different when you’re removed from it and you’re just forced to really focus in and watch the basketball aspect of it. That’s one of the things that helped me, because offensively I was looking at ways that I could get easy baskets, and on defense, I was like, “Whoa, if he does that or if he moves a little quicker there, then he could make this rotation.” Or, “He could defend the ball better if he played it this way.” Different things that are very small, but could make a big difference on the court.
SI: When some big men get the ball in the post, they just shift into a scoring zone — it’s them, the defense and the basket. But you use the post as a place to make plays and feed your teammates. What is your progression in terms of reading the floor for cutters and shooters, and what is it that you’re looking for out there?
AH: My first thing is always as soon as I catch the ball, if I’m able to score quick, then I will do that. If not, usually I catch the ball and I’m kind of already looking to the weak side beyond the defense, and it just depends. If I see somebody that overcommits a little too much, then I’m making him pay — I’m throwing that pass out and getting it to one of our shooters. Or, if I see a big [man] cheating over, then I’m finding Josh in the back or one of the other bigs. It’s just a matter of being aware of what the defense is doing as opposed to just trying to score.
SI: Tell me a little bit about the work you’re doing with Hampton and the Boys and Girls Club.
AH: I’m partnered up with Hampton and with their Hands-On Hamptonality community service program, and they’re working with the Boys and Girls Club and that was part of what motivated me to work hand-in-hand with them. Basically, one of the things they did was refurbish the Harland basketball court of the Boys and Girls Club here in Atlanta, and they hosted a tournament there for kids ages 10 to 15. I actually got to spend time with them, watch them play and hang out with them over there [on Monday]. We also did a donation to 24 of the Boys and Girls Clubs in the metro Atlanta area. So that was a pretty cool day and it was a great turnout for us.
SI: Had you worked at all with the Boys and Girls club before that event?
AH: I had in the past, yes, and I’ve done a couple basketball camps and donated the proceeds in part to the Boys and Girls Club. So it was something that when I found out Hampton had this project, it worked perfect for me. And the Final Four was here, so it couldn’t have been a better time than this.