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Hawks center Al Horford is doing his part to keep Atlanta among the NBA elite.
Doug Benc/Getty Images

Horford anchoring Hawks' early hot start


Posted Nov 19 2009 1:41PM

If rebounding is about desire, Al Horford is proof of it.

Last season, the Hawks ranked near the bottom of the league in rebounds per game (40 a game, 23rd in the league) despite boasting a front line that featured Horford (6-foot-10), Josh Smith (6-foot-9), Zaza Pachulia (6-foot-11) and Solomon Jones (6-foot-10). Though Jones left in the offseason for Indiana (and a few other bit players are gone, too), the Hawks return mostly the same frontcourt group.

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This season, the Hawks are 11th in the league in rebounding and have outrebounded their opponents in nine of their 12 games. Not surprisingly, Atlanta is now among the East's elite and Horford is on pace for a career-best season in the rebound department. For the first time in his career, Horford ranks in the league's top 10 in rebounds per game (10.3 rpg) after finishing in the low teens his first two seasons.

Horford came to camp ready to lift the Hawks in the NBA's pecking order and has delivered with his play. He can count on one hand the number of games this season he's gone without a double-double. He's also shown a lot of maturity on defense and is averaging a career low in personal fouls (2.5 per game) while reaching a career high in blocks per game (1.9).

Coach Mike Woodson has been impressed by the consitent performance of Horford (and his frontcourt mate Smith), praising both as key components in Atlanta's big wins on the road.

"Everybody's making the extra effort, diving on the floor, going for loose balls," Horford told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We're doing all the little things."

G. Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder
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1231.85.55.81.91.80.8.373.320.615
Last Week's Rank - N/A
Why does Sefolosha -- who shot 23.8 percent and had a 4.3 ppg scoring average in three games last week -- land in the Five on the Rise? Because during his struggles, Sefalosha slowed down one of the NBA's elite players (Miami's Dwyane Wade) and pestered another (San Antonio's Manu Ginobili). The Thunder's go-to defensive stopper was quick to give credit to his teammates as he and Oklahoma City kept Wade to 22 points on 6-for-19 shooting in Tuesday's win at Miami. "Everybody did a very good job playing team defense," Sefolosha told The Oklahoman. "You have to be excited going against guys like (Wade). The team did a tremendous job closing down his drives and taking away the easy stuff." Against the Spurs, Sefolosha helped keep Ginobili to an 0-for-8 night and also held Richard Jefferson to 1-for-4 shooting in a big win on Saturday in San Antonio. Oh yeah, and Sefolosha had what was essentially the game-winning steal on Jefferson, too.

G. Dahntay Jones, Pacers
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934.017.44.42.31.01.1.477.400.790
Last Week's Rank -
With the way Jones has been playing of late, he might take up permanent residence in the Five on the Rise. I kept him out at first because the Pacers were off to a miserable start, but he's clearly earned a place this week. Who would have thought Jones would nearly double his career output in every major statistic? Count me among those who thought Jones' move from Denver to Indiana was done for a.) money and b.) playing time on a bad team. The defense that made Jones stand out in Denver is still there and along the way to Indiana, he's added some offense that he couldn't show off in Denver. Jones is not only the Pacers' No. 2 scorer, he's added a level of aggressiveness to the team that's been lacking since Ron Artest was patrolling the perimeter. Since he joined the starting lineup on Nov. 4, the Pacers' starters are averaging roughly 24 free throws a game. Before, Indiana averaged 15.6 free throws per game. Jones had 15 free-throw attempts in last week's win over the Celtics and has been more than happy in the Pacers' up-tempo offense. "It's perfect -- this is why I chose it," Jones told The Star-Ledger. "I felt this was a spot where I could fit in and keep growing as a basketball player. It's worked out really well for me so far."

C. Al Horford, Hawks
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1234.113.810.32.00.81.8.5701.00.743
Last Week's Rank -
We were tempted to keep Joakim Noah in the center spot. He keeps piling up the double-doubles for Chicago. But Horford earned the place with not only his play but the Hawks' quality of wins. Horford has barley seen a jump in playing time from last season, when he averaged 33.5 minutes per game. Yet somehow he's getting more from his minutes on the court. First, give some credit to starting power forward Josh Smith, who has yet to jack up an ill-advised 3-pointer and is instead helping Horford down low on defense. But second, don't deny Horford's improvement. The big man is getting it done and doing so when it matters. Case in point: Last week, Horford was stupendous with a pair of solid double-doubles in wins over the Celtics (12 points, 13 rebounds) and Blazers (15 points, 10 rebounds) as the Hawks turned heads around the league. Horford is running the floor as well as any big man out there and is beginning to transition from being a rebound-only big man to a well-rounded one.

F. Jason Thompson, Kings
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1034.514.210.02.60.71.3.451---.820
Last Week's Rank -
Thompson was one of my picks to be in the inaugural Five on the Rise end-of-season class and last week, he showed why. Although the Kings' four-game win streak (and some of Thompson's production) came to an end in Chicago on Tuesday, Thompson was a dominant force for Sacramento during the run. He had a double-double in every game and was at his best against big-time opponents, racking up a 21-point, 14-rebound game against the Thunder and a 27-point, 11-rebound game against the Rockets. Thompson came back down a bit in the loss to the Bulls (eight points, nine rebounds), but he's fitting into Paul Westphal's offense better and concentrating more on getting teammates open, two things he struggled with earlier this season. Most of all, Thompson seems to be enjoying himself. "This is a different team," Thompson told the Sacramento Bee. "We have a different coach, different system, different players, different mentality. It's just nothing like last year, and that's good."

F. Ersan Ilyasova, Bucks
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920.39.46.61.30.40.7.417.379.875
Last Week's Rank -
Drew Packham spent time in this week's Rookie Rankings writing about Brandon Jennings' ridiculous potential. No doubt, Jennings has turned a likely ho-hum Milwaukee team into a must-see on League Pass. Aside from Jennings' dazzling passes and shooting displays, the Bucks' underrated, scrappy frontcourt is what's helped make Milwaukee go. The Bucks lead the league in rebounding (47.1 per game) and rebounding margin (+ 7.85) and Ilyasova is definitely chipping in. He played a big role in wins over Denver (17 points, eight rebounds 3-for-3 on 3-pointers) and Golden State (nine points, four rebounds). Even in a last-second loss to Dallas, Ilyasova kept the Mavs' defense busy with his 19-point, 12-rebound performance. He's second on the team in total rebounds (trailing only center Andrew Bogut) and his play off the bench is keeping Milwaukee in the thick of the Central. Plus, we just love rooting for a guy wearing one of those goofy clear protective face masks.

Next Five

G: Will Bynum, Pistons -- Detroit is hovering around the .500 mark despite injuries to Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and showed it clearly is no longer among the NBA's elite with losses to Dallas and the Lakers last week. Still, I can't help watching Bynum every time he's on the court. The fearless guard has already flirted with a triple-double this season and is becoming a regular contender for NBA.com's Dunk of the Night video. Acrobatics aside, Bynum has taken the second-most free throws on the team, a true measure of his fearlessness.

G: Rudy Fernandez, Blazers -- Generally speaking, reigning members of the All-Rookie Team are prime candidates for the Five on the Rise. Count Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Eric Gordon (when he was healthy) and Mario Chalmers among that group this season. Fernandez has struggled to in his way sophomore season and was mostly unproductive early in the season. With fellow swingman Travis Outlaw out indefinitely, Fernandez is emerging again in Portland. He played a season-high 32 minutes in last week's loss to Atlanta, which is a nice stat on its own, but consider these points: First, Fernandez hit the game-tying, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to force OT and second, he played the entire overtime, too.

F: Drew Gooden, Mavericks -- With starter Erick Dampier out for last week's games against Detroit and Milwaukee, Gooden showed his value to the Mavs. Gooden has always had offensive talents and they showed in the two wins, as he averaged 16.5 points and 14.5 rebounds. But defense, where Gooden tends to lapse at times, was where he made a bigger impact in those wins. He did a good job of keeping track of Detroit's Charlie Villanueva (who was 6-for-16 with 10 rebounds) and Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut (who shot 6-for-12 from the field and had 6 rebounds). Dampier should return soon, but Gooden's little renaissance period will do nothing but boost his confidence in Dallas.

F: Carl Landry, Rockets -- Landry had written his name down for a spot in this week's Five on the Rise. That was until the Rockets fell apart at home against the Suns and spoiled his career-high 27-point night. Still, give Landry credit for his play last week overall: He put up 15 and 10 at Staples Center against the Lakers on Sunday, which was a nice follow-up to an abysmal three-point, two-rebound showing in a loss to the Kings. He's still working on that consistency aspect to his play, but we like the athleticism he gives Houston once starter Luis Scola goes to the bench.

C: Roy Hibbert, Pacers -- As always with big Roy, it's all about staying out of foul trouble. Lately, he's done a great job of avoiding the whistle and not surprisingly, that's helping Indiana get back in the picture. His 3.4 fouls per game average during the Pacers' win streak is a tick under his season average (3.75), but in the last four games, he's had four fouls or fewer. More impressive than that is Hibbert's 2.75 blocks per game average in that span. It's a great sign he's learning how to guard the basket without being reckless and an even better sign for Indiana's playoff hopes.

NBA.com's Five on the Rise are just one man's opinion and are released every Thursday during the season. If you've got an issue with the names on this list, or have a question or comment for Jeff Case, send him an e-mail

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