Posted Feb 11 2011 9:05AM
Standing 6-foot-10 and weighing 245 pounds makes for a fairly hefty presence, unless you're a center in the NBA charged with handling the Shaqs and Dwight Howards of the league. Then it makes Al Horford, who does this for the Hawks, feel like a former Hawk: Spud Webb.
"It's a little bit of a mismatch sometimes, size-wise, no question," Horford said. "It takes a toll on your body when you're going against guys that outweigh you by 50, 60 pounds every night and have three, four inches on you."
That Horford is not only surviving, but thriving -- confirmed by a second straight trip to the All-Star Game -- says plenty about his ability to play up to the competition. The Little Center That Could doesn't complain or curse his fate; he just sizes up his man, nose-to-Adam's Apple, and goes to work. You wonder why the Hawks are sticking suspiciously close to the Celtics and Heat in the standings and looking down at the Magic, who embarrassed Atlanta last summer? You can start with Horford.
Although, if the Hawks ever did get a functional center to nudge Horford to power forward, where he belongs, then might we see a better Hawks' team, and a better Horford? Perhaps.
"I don't see myself playing center the rest of my career," he said. "I'd like to play [power forward] on a full-time basis at least once in my career. Just to see what it's like. Just to see what I could do."
"I think I'd do OK."
Actually, there aren't many NBA teams blessed with natural centers. But the ones that do are standing in the Hawks' way. The Celtics are layered with bigs, Orlando is gifted with Howard and the Bulls bring Joakim Noah who, in a cruel coincidence, was Horford's college teammate at Florida.
Because of the size deficiency, Horford often absorbs a physical beating. But he has learned to use his head better than his elbows.
"I try to make up for things by using the size difference to my advantage," he said. "My quickness, maybe getting a rebound on the defensive end and bringing the ball up on the break, or beating my man down the floor on the break. Any advantage I can get."
He's getting roughly 10 rebounds a game for his career, and his scoring has increased every season, from 10 points as a rookie in 2007-8 to 16 this season. Mostly, though, Horford is low maintenance, as a player and person. The Hawks know what they're getting on the floor and in the locker room: a hard worker and team leader.
Of course, any talk of the Hawks someday shifting Horford to power forward must include plans for Josh Smith. Is he capable and flexible enough to play small forward, or must he be sacrificed in order to get a true center? The Hawks have lived comfortably with the current arrangement, allowing both Horford and Smith to grow and become important players. But at some point in the near future, they'll need to make a decision, if only to keep Horford from getting hammered.
A front line of Horford and Smith at forward, along with a rebounder and shot-blocker at center (think Sam Dalembert), would create mismatches that may fall in the Hawks' favor, especially if Smith can keep up defensively with quicker small forwards. Horford, almost everyone agrees, would thrive in his new role; think of a young Karl Malone. Freed from the restraints of the paint and the energy required to wrestle 7-footers, Horford would be back the element he enjoyed at Florida, and the thought of that made him smile.
"I like playing against guys my size," he said, "whenever I can."
The other option is trading Smith for a center, which is tough to imagine because nobody is giving away decent centers, and the Hawks would hesitate before swapping Smith, a borderline All-Star, for a merely functional center. The best move for Atlanta is shipping Marvin Williams and getting a center either through the Draft (the Hawks haven't taken one in the first round in 15 years) or a raw replacement through a trade and hoping for the best.
Too bad Horford didn't inherit a few more inches from his father. Tito Horford stood 7-foot-1 and was every bit as athletic as his son, although his NBA career was virtually over by dinnertime. A much longer stay is in store for Al, provided he remains in one piece and moves over one place.
"My father doesn't like me going against bigger guys all the time," said Horford. "Parents, you know."
Well, they know best.
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