Al Horford is Thriving at 35 Years Young

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Al Horford’s age gets brought up a lot these days.

“My wife, she’s like, ‘I don’t understand this.’ Like, ‘Why is that a thing?’” he said Monday after returning from a three-game road trip.

Because that’s what happens when you’re 35 years old, and playing like you’re 35 years young.

In his 15th NBA season, Horford is off to one of the best starts of his career. He’s averaging 13.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and a career-high 2.6 blocks per game through Boston’s first 10 games, and that’s all despite missing the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season after a bout with COVID-19.

Horford’s rebounding average is the highest it’s been in nine seasons, his blocked-shot rate is far higher than it’s ever been (he’s never averaged more than 1.5 swats per game in a season), and his overall aggression portrays him to be closer to 25 than to 35.

On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. He’s got 1,013 regular season and playoff games under his belt and has amassed 33,116 minutes during that span, which would normally take a toll on a 6-foot-9, 240-pound big man. Yet, here he is – still starting, still averaging 30 minutes per appearance, still showing bursts of athleticism, and still playing with the same level of reliability that he’s carried throughout his career.

Perhaps the most comical part to Horford's start is that this feels like déjà vu. The recent reactions to his play are similar to the ones that he got when he joined the Celtics for his first stint with the team five summers ago.

“Honestly, I'm kind of used to it,” Horford said following Monday's practice in Brighton. “Because when I was 30 here (in 2016), I feel like people were bringing it up like, ‘Oh, he’s 30!’ and all this stuff.”

Now at 35, he’s feeling the best physically that he’s ever felt in his career. Those were the exact words that came out of his mouth at the start of training camp, and he’s doubling down on that statement now that he’s logged eight double-digit games in the preseason and regular-season combined.

“I feel really good, physically,” he said Monday. “I feel really good. I know where I'm at. I know what I can do. And, yeah, I’m 35, but I feel as long as I'm putting in the work – and I am putting in the work, I'm doing everything that I need to do – I feel like I can keep playing at a high level.”

Horford gives a lot of credit to the Oklahoma City Thunder for helping him feel such confidence in his physical state, which is ironic since he only played 28 games for the Thunder last season after the lottery-bound franchise decided to shut him down in order to develop their younger players. However, the trade-off was that OKC’s training staff went out of its way to help keep him in shape and prolong his career.

“They just had great support systems,” Horford said. "Kind of like what we have here now, looking at my nutrition, helping me with treatments before or after practice, the lift, or the performance stuff, kind of mapping the schedule out and kind of making the player involved in everything that goes into playing the games, which is something that we're doing here as well. And that, for me, that year was very beneficial for me to feel good again, get healthy, and things like that. They have a great program over there. I was really impressed. And they really helped me be in this position, from a basketball standpoint, health-wise.”

Head coach Ime Udoka joked before the season that Horford “found the fountain of youth.” But in a way, Horford did.

The rejuvenated big man finds his statistical projections in near-uncharted territory, given that Hall-of-Famers Tim Duncan and Patrick Ewing are the only other 35-or-older players in NBA history who averaged at least 10 PPG and 2.5 BPG in a season. And no 35-year-old has ever achieved the combination of points, rebounds, assists, and blocks that Horford is pacing himself at.

Of course, the season is still young. But so is Horford, thriving in his 15th NBA season, and feeling 35 years young.