Loud and Clear
Once soft-spoken veterans Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague are the Hawks' new vocal leaders.
By Jon Cooper
Quiet and efficient.
Those were the words that had been most frequently attached to Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford, point guard Jeff Teague, and, to a lesser extent, at least from the volume standpoint, power forward Josh Smith.
Smith, Horford and Teague, whose entrances into the NBA are almost evenly staggered by three years — Smith is entering his ninth NBA season, Horford his sixth and Teague his fourth— have always had guys in front of them with more experience within the confines of the Hawks' locker room.
That's no longer the case. Smith is the senior Atlanta Hawk — by one year over center Zaza Pachulia — and after Horford and Teague - only Ivan Johnson, beginning his second season, has ANY time with Atlanta.
Sweeping changes during the off-season saw the departure of long-time fixtures Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams as well as veteran Jason Collins and set up a potential vacuum as far as leadership.
But that vacuum never materialized, as the triumvirate filled it before the team even entered training camp.
"All three of those guys have really been good in that area thus far," said head coach Larry Drew. "They've been very vocal, which was something I talked to them about. Jeff is a quiet guy by nature and he's not going to be vocal. I want him to lead with his aggressiveness and tenacity out on the floor. Josh, on the other hand, is a little bit more vocal, Al is a little bit more vocal. All three guys are doing a good job of really spending time with our young guys and our new guys in helping them get acclimated to our system. I'm hoping they'll continue to be able to do that."
None of them are shrinking from the responsibility.
"It's an evolution where it's my time now," said Smith. "They blessed me with the opportunity to be one of the leaders on this team, one of the vocal leaders. I'm thankful and I'm very blessed to have that opportunity. I'm ready to seize the moment."
"I always felt that I was one of the leaders here," said Horford. "Now it is a little different because there are a lot of new guys but I am excited about the challenge and I feel that the only way I can do my job is to lead by example and try to help the guys as much as I can."
Smith and Horford have been a key 1-2 punch up front since Horford came into the league and the two have grown together.
Smith's evolution has seen him become not only an explosive open-court player and intimidating shot-blocker, but an overall diverse talent, who can run the floor as well as pull up for the 'J' — the latter a part of his game that has greatly improved and has looked smoother than ever in training camp.
Horford is a two-time All-Star - whose value really came to the forefront last season, when a torn pectoral muscle cost him the final 55 games of the shortened 66-game schedule. His return during the playoffs gave the team a lift, even though the Hawks were eliminated in the first round for the first time in three years in a hard-fought series with Boston.
For the team to make its sixth-straight playoff appearance in an improved Eastern Conference, the Hawks will need to pull together quickly. Drew believes his three leaders can expedite that process.
"All three of them have been out there talking to the guys, telling them where they're supposed to go. They're really being vocal out on the floor," he said. "I've always said, with any team, you have to be able to communicate and you have to be vocal. I can see those guys, starting to take more of a leadership role, taking the bull by the horns. I totally embrace that. There are so many new faces, you want try to get all of them on the same page as fast as you can, the way to do it is to communicate. I can see the guys are making a conscious effort to really communicate."
Probably no one has more responsibility in forming the teams' cohesion than Teague.
Atlanta's first-year President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Danny Ferry made sure that there was plenty of fire power available for a team that last season finished 17th in the League in scoring (96.6 points per game), 11th in field goal percentage (45.4 percent) and 24th (tied with the Washington Wizards) in free throws attempted per game (21.0).
Ferry reshaped the offense, trading away Johnson, who was the team's leading scorer every season he was in Atlanta, and Williams, bringing in sharp shooters Anthony Morrow (part of the Johnson trade), Kyle Korver (acquired from Chicago for cash considerations), and free agent Lou Williams, as well as speedy point guard Devin Harris (acquired in the Williams deal). He also drafted hot-shooting John Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer his final two years, and Mike Scott, a forward who will hit the boards but also can step out for the midrange jumper.
If there is a problem with all of this offense, it's that somebody has to get everyone touches.
And that's where Teague comes in. He'll be happy to deal with the distribution to the vast number of options.
"We've had really good teams here but the depth now is just unbelievable," he said. "We have probably the best shooting team in the NBA, with Korver, Morrow, Jenkins, the ability to stretch the defense."
"We'll be able to get to the basket a lot easier. You can't leave them," he added. "Korver gets in, they're going to be glued to him. You can't leave Lou. That's why I wanted to work on my three-point shot. So when Lou has the ball, Devin has the ball, they can't leave me. It's a good thing when the floor is open. Al and Josh will have room to operate, I'll be able to get in the lanes, and it’s fun to play with."
While the Hawks will be fun offensively, they'll be all business on the defensive end.
"We're going to play defense, we're going to get in the passing lanes, we're going to get steals," Teague said. "We're going to get in the open floor but we're going to be an organized fast-break team. We're not just going to be out here running and gunning."
While learning the new faces and the different personalities will take time, there is eagerness rather than trepidation to do so.
This orientation led Horford to compare this year's training camp to his rookie season of 2007-08, coincidentally the year the Hawks broke a nine-year absence from the postseason and began the current run of playoff appearances.
"I made a reference earlier in camp that it felt like my rookie year because everyone's new," he said. "It's very different but I think different can be good. We're excited with what we have."
Teague, who compared the feeling-out process at the start of camp with his freshman year at Wake Forest, also 2007-08, believes the jelling process is well underway and can't wait to see what happens once it's complete.
"We've made great steps, drastic steps," he said. "We're coming along and our defense is coming along. We're getting better every day."