The evolution of Al Horford is complete

During the first timeout of their game against the Warriors earlier this month, the Celtics played one of their pre-taped video segments on the Jumbotron. Al Horford was reading through a series of mundane questions when the last one peaked his interest: Can Al Horford shoot 3’s?

“Yes, he can,” said Horford, pausing for effect. “Yes,” he added, a smiling washing over his face, “he can.” It was the picture of a man at ease in his role as an evolutionary NBA big man, complete with increased mobility on both ends of the floor and thriving alongside fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving.

Just to give you an idea of Horford’s comfort level on the Celtics now, he returned from a two-game absence after a second concussion in as many seasons to score 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting against a Raptors team that has averaged 51 wins over the last four seasons, sandwiching a fadeaway jumper and a jab-step 3-pointer around a series of dunks and layups.

“He’s playing young again,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier said afterwards.

Horford followed that effort with a double-double in 30 minutes against the Nets, scoring 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting. His first two buckets were hook shots in the lane — one with his right hand, one with the left. He drove for a layup and rolled to the rim for another. He cleaned up the mess in transition and worked the high post. And his last two baskets came on a floater through traffic and a pick-and-pop triple from the right arc.

It was everything you would ever want in a modern NBA post player (and more) offensively — 38 points on 84 percent shooting, for goodness sake — and we haven’t even gotten to what makes Horford elite. He’s one of the best passing bigs in the league and an All-Defensive-caliber defender who can square up against explosive Philadelphia 76ers rookie point guard Ben Simmons at the top of the key or muscle 7-foot-3 New York Knicks phenom Kristaps Porzingis on the block. He’s even underrated as a rebounder whose defensive obligations often pull him out to the 3-point line.

“A lot of names get thrown around, rightfully so, in the defensive talk around the league,” Brad Stevens said after Horford held Porzingis to 12 points. “There are a lot of really good defenders, but Al’s up there and doesn’t always get mentioned. And that’s OK with Al. He’s proven he’s OK with just contributing to winning, whether he gets talked about or not.”

Horford may have always had this in him. The Hawks drafted him third a decade ago, after he led Florida to consecutive NCAA titles, and he was an All-Star every healthy season but one between ages 23 and 29. Yet, Horford has never played better than he’s playing now at 31 years old.

“I don’t know if young Al Horford played like this, to be honest,” Horford responded to Rozier. “It’s been years of working on my game and trying to play this new way. This is the style the NBA is shifting towards, and it’s taken me a couple years to get comfortable and play like this.”

He finished: “Young Al Horford couldn’t shoot 3’s.”

Let’s start there. Horford is shooting 28-of-65 (43.1 percent) from 3, which virtually ties him with Kevin Durant for the title of NBA’s best-shooting big men among those who attempt more than three per game. He’s on pace to make 104 triples this year, about 20 percent more than he made each of the last two seasons and almost 10 times more than he did in 2014-15.

It was just three years ago that Horford solely played center for the Hawks, making just 11 triples on 36 tries and attempting roughly a third of his shots from the mid-range. He now splits time at center and power forward, starting alongside Aron Baynes or Marcus Morris, depending on the size of the opposing frontcourt, and he made his 11 3-pointers by Nov. 3 this season.

But Horford’s transformation into a floor-spacer began even further back in his career. “When I came into the NBA, I was barely shooting 15-footers,” he told Parquet Post. “Everything was in the paint. Everything was hook shots, put-backs, strictly defense, and that was my game. My third year, I started working with Mark Price, and Mark really helped my shot and gave me a lot of confidence, and my mid-range started to come together real nice.”

He made his first two All-Star rosters that season and the next, before tearing a pectoral muscle 11 games into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. During Horford’s rehab, former Hawks GM Rick Sund told him, “The league is changing, and you have a really good shot. I think you should start working on your corner 3’s. I feel like it’ll extend your career.”

Horford only attempted six 3’s his next season, making three of them, but the seeds were planted. And when newly hired Hawks GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer stressed to Horford the following summer, “We want you to shoot 3’s; we feel like you can do it,” his annual 3-point attempts rose from 11 to 36 and then 256 in his final year in Atlanta.

“It’s not easy. It’s not easy changing your game,” Horford told Parquet Post. “The good thing about coach Bud was he always gave me a lot of confidence and let me learn through mistakes and grow, and I just feel like I’ve been evolving ever since with coach Stevens the past two years. Last year was a step towards it, and this year I’m even more comfortable.

“I would’ve never imagined I’d be shooting 3’s,” he added. “Never. Shooting 3’s, doing everything I’m doing, it’s what it takes to stay in this league and be relevant, and that’s one of the things that I want to be.”

Horford’s shooting has unlocked all possibilities for both himself and the Celtics offensively. Every option is on the table in the pick-and-roll. He can shoot over smaller defenders either rolling to the basket or the perimeter. He can pop to the 3-point line and fire open shots when bigger defenders don’t give chase, or he can take them off the dribble when they do:

And if it seems like Horford is more mobile this season, it’s because he is.

“Definitely,” Marcus Smart said after watching Horford carve up Toronto’s starting frontcourt of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas earlier this season. “Al’s getting to the basket, dunking on guys. He’s not grabbing his knees. Al’s playing young. That’s a cool way to say it. I like that.”

Horford is getting out into transition more often, and his four drives to the basket per game are twice as frequent as last year, ranking third in the NBA among bigs behind only DeMarcus Cousins and Frank Kaminsky.

These aren’t coincidences.

Horford credits his increased mobility to hiring a new full-time trainer over the summer. Early in his NBA career, he suffered a series of ankle, knee, hamstring, groin, back, chest and shoulder injuries, so much of his offseason work had been aimed toward rehab and regaining strength. This year was different. “Injuries were a lot of it,” he said. “I suffered from some injuries, so in the offseason I was training, but I wasn’t training at this level.”

This year, Horford was building strength.

“For the first time in six or seven years, I was able to put in a good amount of time in the weight room, strength and conditioning this summer, and working on my flexibility,” Horford told Parquet Post. “I put in a lot of work this summer, really just working on my body, strengthening and flexibility, and it’s paid off. All summer, we really got after it, and it’s an emphasis I’ve been keeping up with this season. That’s been the difference for me. I feel the best that I’ve ever felt.”

Naturally, the added strength and mobility has translated into easier opportunities. His five alley-oops this season have almost already equaled last year’s output (6). His 16 dunks on 16 attempts are on pace to obliterate his 2016-17 total (41). And he’s on schedule to score more baskets driving to the hoop than he even attempted all of last year (82). His layup attempts are up a tick, too, and he’s getting to the line more frequently as a result.

“It’s really changed my body,” said Horford, as chiseled a 6-foot-10 player as you’ll find, “how I move and how I feel, and you can really tell out there.”

Horford is scoring 13.7 points per game, his lowest average since his injury-shortened 2011-12 campaign, but his efficiency (62.8 true shooting percentage) is by far the highest of his career, so don’t be surprised if we see the Celtics turn to the 31-year-old more often down the stretch.

“Physically,” he said, “I feel great, and I know that there’s more there, so I’m excited about that.”

Horford isn’t willing to concede that playing with Irving is all that different from playing with Isaiah Thomas, if only because the basic tenets of what he’s asked to do haven’t changed in the Celtics’ movement-heavy system.

“I think my role is similar, just because I want to make sure I facilitate and help them be the great players that they are,” Horford told Parquet Post. “With Isaiah, I just wanted to make sure that I got him open, let him do his thing. With Kyrie, it’s the same way.”

But early returns indicate Horford’s two-man game with Irving could be even more effective than the Horford-Thomas dynamic. Horford is on pace to match his scoring output as a roll man last season, when he was one of the league’s 10 most productive pick-and-roll players, only on significantly fewer opportunities. Yet, Irving is assisting almost 10 percent more of Horford’s field goals than Thomas did in 2016-17. All of which means Horford is more effective in the pick-and-roll and finding more creative ways to score.

The feeling is mutual between Irving as Horford. The latter assisted 58 of Thomas’ 682 field goals last season, or less than 1 percent, but he’s on pace to eclipse that total with Irving by the end of December this year, as he’s assisting on almost 20 percent of his point guard’s field goals in 2017.

The offensive chemistry between Horford and Irving was apparent from the start. Take the first two baskets of this Celtics season, for example. On the opening possession of opening night against the Cavaliers, Irving set a backscreen for Gordon Hayward, curled around a Jaylen Brown pick at the top of the key and recieved a perfectly timed pocket pass from Horford, scoring on a play that makes you miss Hayward, respect the hell out of Stevens’ offense and appreciate the Irving-Horford tandem all at once:

Two plays later, Horford helped free a curling Irving, who took an inbounds pass from Brown and slipped it over to Horford for a wide-open jumper:

As Irving said after Horford logged a season-high 10 assists last week against the Magic, a few of which helped the All-Star point guard get to 30 points in just 25 minutes, “I’m just glad I’m on the same team as him. … My appreciation that I have for Al goes every single day I get to play with him.”

This isn’t to say Thomas and Horford weren’t capable of these plays. They made plenty of them. But they weren’t looking for each other as often. And if you’re in the camp that Irving is superior to Thomas or willing to admit defenses must focus more on him, then it only makes sense that Horford is benefiting from playing with Irving and in the space that he provides.

It also makes sense that Horford wouldn’t go so far as to say all that.

“The thing about Kyrie is just that we continue to develop our chemistry, and it’s going great,” added Horford. “He’s really doing a great job, but for me, honestly, the way the system is, whoever’s out there, I’m just going to play the same way and just try to make them look good.”

Mission accomplished:

And Irving isn’t the only one Horford is making look good. He’s been so efficient offensively that even the Warriors — one of the NBA’s most versatile defenses — were sending multiple defenders his way, which left Golden State playing 4-on-3 elsewhere. That’s playing with fire, because only Cousins is averaging more assists than Horford (4.9) among bigs.

Check out how the defense collapses when Horford drives to the rim:

Smart missed this 3, but you can see how the offense opens up because of the gravitational pull that Horford’s improved play provides. Again, other than Cousins, no big averages more potentialassists (missed shots that otherwise would have led to an assist) than Horford’s 7.9 per game, which means there’s even more room for offensive improvement around him.

(Hi again, Gordon Hayward.)

This is why, after Horford scored just five points in the blowout of Orlando — one of those nights box-score pundits might cite in calling him “Average Al” — Magic coach Frank Vogel made it a point to dub Horford “probably the most underrated guy in the league, in my opinion, for everything he does.”

With Horford’s offensive versatility now in full bloom, let’s turn to defense, where he’s on pace to earn his first career All-Defensive nod. Sandwiched between stalwarts Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol, Horford ranks among the NBA’s best centers in defensive field goal percentage (opponents are shooting 41.5 percent against him, 5 percent worse than their averages).

Never considered an exceptional rebounder, Horford is grabbing 23.2 percent of available defensive rebounds, his highest rate since his first two All-Star seasons, despite hounding stretch bigs on the perimeter more often now. He’s also tasked with stopping guards on switches, so the fact that his rebounding rate is on par with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green — another big man who guards all five positions for stretches — makes sense and puts those numbers into perspective.

Here he is, for example, defending Heat rookie Bam Adebayo in the post, coming across the court to stop wing Josh Richardson in his tracks as Jayson Tatum gets beat, recovering onto Adebayo and grabbing the rebound after  Tyler Johnson was forced to jack a 3 with the shot clock expiring:

“I guess people really haven’t noticed me being in those positions so much before, but I always felt I’m able to cover some of these guys,” Horford said after chasing the rangy Porzingis around for a night. “Also, the reason I’m doing it a little bit more now is I was playing the 4 a little bit. Usually I’m with the big guys down low, but now with Baynes playing at the 5, it allows me to guard those guys, and it gives me a little more freedom on defense.”

If you really want to get technical, Horford’s “adjusted rebound chance percentage” is 69.8 percent, which means he’s corralling almost three-quarters of the rebounds that he has a legitimate chance to grab (when he’s within 3.5 feet of the ball), excluding the times he defers to teammates. And, yes, that also places him among the NBA’s best — ahead of DeAndre Jordan.

Here’s Horford defending Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo on the perimeter, crashing the rim when Milwaukee’s offense is steered elsewhere and leading the break after swiping the board from a crowd at the glass:

So, using one metric or another, Horford ranks among the NBA’s best bigs in 3-point shooting, dribble drives, assists, defense and rebounding. As a result, the Celtics are 13.8 points per 100 possessions better with Horford on the floor than they are without him. With him in the mix, they own a 108.6 offensive rating (the equivalent of a top-five offense) and a 98.0 defensive rating, which has helped make the Celtics the league’s best defensive team.

This is the mark of Al Horford, fully evolved. As Stevens said of his star big man earlier this season, “Nothing that he does on the court surprises me.”

It took Boston longer to come around on Horford than it did the Celtics.

Every time Horford found a rhythm in his first post-Hawks season, his 2016-17 campaign got interrupted. There was the concussion that cost him nine games in his first month on the job. He suffered a groin strain six weeks later. And he sat two games in March with a strained elbow on his shooting arm after a stretch in which he finished 3-for-15 from distance.

He returned to average a 14-7-5 line while shooting 42.1 percent from 3 over the final 18 games of the regular season, numbers not all that dissimilar to what he’s putting up now. Even then, though, the going theory among casual fans, talk-radio hosts and TV blowhards was that “Average Al” wasn’t holding up his end of the four-year, $113 million max contract bargain.

(I wrote about this phenomenon for Ball Don’t Lie here in April 2016: “Overpaid and underappreciated: Boston’s Al Horford conundrum.”)

Then came the playoffs.

Finally feeling at home on a new team with a new role in a new system (and let’s not forget his wife delivered their second child a month into the season), Horford put it all together during the run to the conference finals, averaging 15.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting better than 50 percent from distance against the best the East had to offer.

“There’s a couple things with that,” he told Parquet Post. “One of them is understanding what coach expects from me, how he wants me to play and getting comfortable with the guys last year, and I think towards the end of the year, we were in a good place, and once the playoffs hit I felt great.

“And also just staying the course. Changes can be tough, and it just took me a while to adjust, but now I’m in a great place,” Horford added. “I feel great. With the addition of the strength and conditioning, I feel like that’s put me in a position where I’m more successful and I feel great on the court.”

In that vein, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s different about Horford. His numbers aren’t thatdifferent from a year ago, although he’s been more efficient. But something feels different. Maybe we’ve adjusted to him, too, understanding better that his “beyond the boxscore” contributions aren’t just lip service. Maybe it’s the different ways he’s getting his points. Maybe it’s the increased mobility from his new workout regimen. Maybe it’s the pairing with Kyrie. Maybe it’s just his comfort level in the Stevens system.

Or maybe it’s a combination of all those things. Whatever the reason or however you’d assign credit to each of those factors, Horford has been undeniably above average, maybe even great, and arguably the MVP of a team that boasts the NBA’s best record and a top-10 player in Irving.

“It definitely looks like a young Al Horford. An All-Star Al Horford, to be honest,” Brown said after Horford dominated down the stretch of a one-point win over the Raptors. “If he keeps it up, we’re going to be tough.”

Horford doesn’t buy the “young Al Horford” bit, though, because that undersells the work that it took for him to evolve into the player he is today.

“No question, I’m the best that I’ve been,” he said. I feel more prepared offensively. I’ve been shooting the ball great. Moving-wise defensively, I feel great, too. I feel like I’m in a good place and in the peak of my career.”

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