Al Horford plays for the Atlanta Hawks, so he doesn’t get nearly as much attention as he should. Horford plays on the same front line as Josh Smith, himself a wrecking ball of energy and athleticism wrapped in an enigma, so he is, to many, arguably not even the most interesting player on his own team, a team that most people aren’t paying much attention to in the first place.
Well, that’s all pretty stupid. Horford genuinely has one of the most interesting, well-rounded games in the league, and it’s on display on a nightly basis for a team that is increasingly running more offense through the quietly dominant forward/center on the block, at the elbow and everywhere in between.
Let’s start with something that most people in NBA circles have already come to know about this season; the Horford-Smith pick-and-roll. Not many teams have a 4-5 combination capable of running this action, but Atlanta is able to break it out time and again with either of the two as the ball-handler because they’re each so skilled. I happen to like it best with Horford as the ball-handler and Smith as the roller because Horford’s a slightly more reliable passer and Smith a more explosive above-the-rim finisher (and thus more likely to suck the defense into the lane to open things up for the Kyle Korvers of the world on the perimeter), but it works well both ways.
Larry Drew will often call this on sideline out of bounds plays, or as a late-game option, as he does here against the Boston Celtics, this time with Smith as the ball-handler (which, it should be noted, is how they run it most often).
The action is almost always the same. Teague handles the ball above the right elbow extended and enters to Smith at the right elbow. Horford comes up from the left block to set a screen, where he either slips to the rim or makes contact and dives to the rim, then Smith hits him with a pass over the top of the defense. Atlanta ran it late in games against Phoenix, Miami and New York earlier in the season as well. It works, so why not?
Another interesting way the Hawks will use Horford in conjunction with Smith: as the outlet man in a Teague-Smith pick-and-roll. In the video below, the Hawks twice execute what I like to call the tic-tac-toe play. The point guard and one of the two bigs run a pick-and-roll, while the opposite big stations himself near the elbow or the top of the key to play outlet man. Rather than attack off the dribble or try to squeeze a pass to the roll man, the point guard simply hits the opposite big at the elbow or top of the key, and the outlet man in turn fires a pass to the roll man before the rotating defense knows what hit them. Horford has become a master at this pass, much like Pau Gasol, Chris Webber and others were before him.
Horford’s skills as a passer don’t stop there. He’s most useful out of that high post area, where he can survey the court and pick out all the cutters and spot-up shooters his heart desires. But he can also make the pass off the catch on pick-and-rolls–an incredibly important pass for a modern big man to have in his arsenal due to the nature of defense these days–or draw double teams and kick out from the low block. He does a little bit of everything.
Horford is also quite skilled, versatile and even mostly symmetrical, as a scorer. Let’s take a look at his heat map, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
That’s a lot of heat in the middle of the lane, at the top of the key, around the elbows, and in both short corners. He’s got a little bit more between the short corner and the lane on the right side of the court, as he seems to favor post-ups on the right block slightly more than the left.
But it’s evident when you watch him that he feels comfortable most anywhere on the floor, and with any given play situation. In the post, he can back down or face up from either block. He’s strong enough to bully his way on the block, quick and agile enough to face up off the dribble and his jumper is smooth enough that defenders can’t just give him space and let him shoot. His main goal when he gets the ball there seems to be to face his man up for a jumper (sometimes he’ll wag that right leg two, three or even four times in a row on a rocker step just to get enough space) or to take him off the dribble for a running hook shot or layup, but he’s completely comfortable backing his man down into the lane and dropping one over his shoulder, or spinning baseline and attacking the rim.
We’ve already gone over his proficiency in pick-and-rolls quickly above, but suffice it to say he is equally adept at rolling, popping and slipping, finishing with a layup, dunk, hook shot or jumper, attacking immediately off the catch or putting it on the floor, and can make any pass necessary to a cutter or shooter.
We’ll move now to while I believe is an underexploited aspect of Horford’s game: his ability to shoot off screens. Horford has only eight baskets on “off screen” plays this season, and six of those have come on a variation of the same inbounds play. Atlanta usually only runs the play when Horford, Smith and Zaza Pachulia are in the game together. The three of them line up in a triangle close to the inbounds man underneath the hoop, while the point guard stations himself at the top of the key.
Then, Horford either comes off a Pachulia screen for a jumper immediately, or else the ball gets inbounded and swung around to the elbow, at which point Horford sets a down screen and then receives a screen of his own to pop out to the short corner for a jumper. It’s a very smooth-looking action that almost always results in Horford getting an open shot.
With Horford’s skill as a jump shooter, it seems like this is the kind of thing that should be taken advantage of more often. Whether that comes in the form of more screen the screneer plays, or even the simple small-big or big-big pin-downs the Spurs have used for Tim Duncan for years and the Thunder have recently started using for Serge Ibaka, the opportunity is there to foster even more opportunities and versatility in Horford’s game.