Atlanta Hawks forward/center Al Horford, having recently completed his fourth NBA season, is in his prime and playing the best basketball of his career.
Averaging career highs in points (15.3), field goal percentage (.557) and free throw percentage (.789) while also posting 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in 2010-11, he was named a NBA All-Star for the second-straight season just months after Atlanta locked him up long-term with an impressive five-year, $60 million contract extension in November.
OGGOA caught up with the two-time National Champion, two-time NCAA Finals Most Valuable Player and member of the 2008 NBA All-Rookie Team while he was in Lexington, KY practicing with the Dominican Republic National Team. Horford, who is working out in facilities usually occupied by the Kentucky Wildcats due to his team being led by Kentucky head coach John Calipari, has found himself learning a new system in enemy territory. He spoke with us just after completing practice about a variety of topics including his new contract, reminiscing with the Oh Fours, representing his country and performing some Gator Chomps in the near future.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: Last time we spoke was a year and a half ago just before you played in your first All-Star game. You went back and posted some career highs this season. To what do you attribute your continued improvement?
AL HORFORD: “There’s really no secret behind that, it’s all about putting in the time in the summer. I always try to focus on something different in the offseason that I want to work on and improve. This past summer I got a chance to work with [veteran skills trainer] Rob McClanaghan, a great basketball trainer who works with a lot of other guys in the league including Derrick Rose. He helped me a lot with my game, but I think at the end of the day it is just all about taking the time and making a commitment to work and keep getting better in the offseason.”
AS: Is there any type of competition between you and Jo[akim Noah]? Obviously you were came out of the same school and were picked high in the 2007 NBA Draft, but you’re also playing the same position and competing in the Eastern Conference, too.
AH: “Nah, not really. Me and Joakim, when we talk, we rarely talk basketball. I’m sure he wants to do good and great for his team, and I do the same, but I think at the end of the day we’re not caught up on so much individual stuff. For us, it’s more about our teams and winning and stuff like that. Obviously he has the upper hand on me because of their team because of the playoffs. I know he was happy about that. We’re not competing individually, it’s [more like] how much we impact our individual teams.”
Read the rest of our exclusive interview with Al Horford after the jump!
AS: I spoke with Taurean [Green] a few months ago and he told me about all of you finally reuniting at his wedding. Have the four of you had a lot of opportunities like that since leaving Florida for the NBA? If not, how special was that?
AH: “Honestly, that was the first time that all four of us were together at the same time, I would say, before that it must have been two years. It was like 2009 the last time we were all back together. We realized how much we missed each other. We clicked right away because we all hung out together. At times [prior] it was me, Joakim and Taurean; or those three without me; or us without Corey [Brewer]. This time that we all got together [was special]. I think we’re going to try to make an effort now to get together more often. We shared some great times with the Gators, and we should keep staying close.”
AS: Well to that end, Taurean said that Corey can be the one who is pretty impossible to get in touch with sometimes…
AH: “Yeah, I mean Corey is definitely the hardest to get a hold of. Corey is low-key. You usually know where he’s at, but it’s just a matter of reaching him. He spends a lot of time at home with his parents in Tennessee and stuff like that. We’re going to make a conscious effort to get together more often. Depending what happens with our season, we’re going to try to make it down to Gainesville. I mentioned to the guys that Coach [Billy] Donovan was nice enough to offer us [the ability] to come and work out and use the facilities. I think that would be great. In the past we’ve gone and played pick-up with the guys before the season. That wouldn’t be a bad idea. That’s something as a resource that we can use. Hopefully we can get us together down there in Florida. Taurean could have an issue being in Spain, but at least Corey and Joakim [and I].”
AS: I know that, while you’re comfortable playing center, ideally you really want to play the four. How do you feel about Atlanta’s attempts to get a center to play next to you?
AH: “The more comfortable I get, the more I feel like I can play the four. That’s something they’re going to have to consider. At the end of the day, I think the priority is to see what is going to happen with the lockout and everything. Once that happens, we’ll see where the team is at and we’ll go from there.”
AS: Being the No. 3 overall pick, your rookie contract was nice. But the extension you signed last offseason was even nicer. Have or will you be splurging on anything?
AH: “Not yet. Nothing that I can think of or have done yet. My contract extension kicks in when the next season starts, and I kind of knew there was a possible lockout, so I just got prepared financially. I enjoy my life but am smart about [my money] and am not really spending like that yet. I will eventually do something, but I haven’t thought of anything yet. I have everything I need so we’ll see what happens and what comes to mind.”
AS: Let’s talk about what’s going on with you now. When were you approached about possibly playing for the Dominican Republic national team?
AH: “They approached me in January or February. I played a couple times with them before; [the team has] had some issues. This year they had a new group running the show and everything, and I [appreciated] what they believed in, their philosophy and their vision with our team. Everything was right, so it was a no-brainer for me to represent my country and give them a chance to qualify for the Olympics – something that’s never been done for the Dominican Republic. And we have a legitimate shot.”
AS: Is it strange to be practicing in enemy territory at Kentucky in Lexington?
AH: “It’s different. People here acknowledge me. Surprisingly they’re not too harsh. They usually say, ‘Hey Al, you’re a great player, but Go Cats!’ It’s different. There are Gators in Lexington, surprisingly. They come up out of nowhere and approach me and stuff when I’m out. So it’s always good to see a fellow Gator.”
AS: Obviously you’ve played on a lot of really good teams, and I know there are a few other NBA guys on the roster. How is the team looking right now?
AH: “It’s coming together. We’re running a new system with Coach Calipari. A lot of us are not used to running the way that he runs things. We’re adjusting to it. The biggest thing for us is understanding what he wants us to do, and now we’re trying to put it together, figure it out and move along. Playing exhibition games are going to help us get prepared for the FIBA Americas tournament.”
AS: I know you haven’t been working under him too long yet, but can you compare Calipari with let’s say Donovan as a coach?
AH: “The biggest difference that I’ve noticed is Calipari wants you to attack and dribble-drive to the basket a lot and create that way as opposed to Coach Donovan, who wants us to do more pick-and-rolls or have the ball leave the floor as much as possible – pass-pass-lay-up and things like that. They have some similar concepts – they both believe in transition and running the break and things like that, but they both have a different way [of achieving that]. Calipari uses more dribble hand-offs, and Coach Donovan is more about pick-and-rolls.”
AS: I asked a few readers if they had any questions for you. One of them said they wanted to see you do some Gator Chomps after big-time dunks or plays next year like some of the guys do in the NFL. What do you think about that?
AH: “That is a great idea. That is a great idea. I will consider doing that; however, I have to do it when we’re about to win a game or something like that. I can’t be doing it when we’re down 20. That’s definitely a good idea, and I’ll take that into consideration.”
» OGGOA INTERVIEWS: P Chas Henry | DE Kevin Carter (Part I), (Part II) | Delisha Milton-Jones | DL Joe Cohen | F Chandler Parsons | C Marreese Speights | LB Mike Peterson | PG Taurean Green | QB Tim Tebow | QB Danny Wuerffel | ESPN’s Erin Andrews | ESPN’s Erin Andrews II | DE Alex Brown | WR Percy Harvin | F/C Al Horford | WR David Nelson | QB Shane Matthews | TE Cornelius Ingram | DE Jermaine Cunningham | S Major Wright | LB Earl Everett | DE Justin Trattou | DT Terron Sanders | F/C Chris Richard | DE Lynden Trail