He’s only 23 years old, is playing out of position for the Hawks and usually is overshadowed by teammates Joe Johnson and Josh Smith.
Yet NBA coaches consider center Al Horford one of the top players in the league. He was named an All-Star reserve Thursday along with Johnson for the Feb. 14 game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“It’s like a dream come true for me," said Horford, whom the Hawks selected No. 3 overall out of Florida in the 2007 draft. "When you’re playing basketball as a kid, you envision yourself making it to the NBA. And once you make it to this level, you work so hard to get to an All-Star level.
"It’s just a blessing for me to take part in this game.”
It’s the fourth consecutive All-Star selection for Johnson, who finally will be joined by a teammate. The Hawks last had two All-Stars in the same year in 1998, when Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Smith made the team.
Johnson, 28, is the first Hawks player to reach four consecutive All-Star games since Mutombo from 1997-2001 (the game wasn’t played in 1999 because of a lockout). The Hawks acquired Johnson in a trade with Phoenix in August 2005.
“It means a lot to me to be selected as an All-Star again,” Johnson said. “It’s really a tribute to the Atlanta Hawks organization, and my teammates and coaches. I’ve put in a lot of hard work over the years, and over the summers, and it’s always nice to see it pay off.”
Hawks coach Mike Woodson had lobbied coaches to vote Smith to his first All-Star team, but Smith, a power forward, couldn't make an East roster that includes forwards Paul Pierce of Boston, Chris Bosh of Toronto and Gerald Wallace of Charlotte.
The 30 NBA head coaches were asked to vote for seven players in their conference: two guards, two forwards, one center and two players regardless of position. They were not allowed to vote for players on their team.
Boston guard Rajon Rondo and Chicago guard Derrick Rose round out the East reserves. Rondo, Wallace and Rose also are first-time All-Stars.
The West reserves include Utah's Deron Williams, New Orleans' Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, Memphis' Zach Randolph and Portland's Brandon Roy. Randolph, Durant and Williams will make their All-Star debuts.
Horford, at 6-foot-10, is undersized for an NBA center, but East coaches must appreciate his effectiveness playing the Hawks’ up-tempo style and Woodson’s switching defense.
"I think he's a really good player, and everybody agrees he's pretty much a power forward that's playing center,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy recently told the Orlando Sentinel. “He's learned to use his quickness. I don't think there's any negatives with him.
“The biggest challenge is defending the big centers in the low post. He's small by center standards. It would be interesting to see him at power forward night in and night out. "
Smith’s production (15.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 3.9 assists, 51 percent shooting) compares favorably with Wallace’s (18.6 points, 11 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.9 assists, 43 percent shooting). Smith also rates high in advanced statistics that measure players’ performance beyond the traditional box score.
“When we are playing at a high level he is usually flying around, blocking shots, rebounding, and we are definitely a tough team to beat,” Johnson said of Smith earlier in the week. “He gives everybody energy.”
The starting lineups, selected by fan voting, were announced last week.
The East starters are Miami's Dwyane Wade, Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, Cleveland's LeBron James, Boston's Kevin Garnett and Orlando's Dwight Howard. Starting for the West are Phoenix's Steve Nash, the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Denver's Carmelo Anthony, San Antonio's Tim Duncan and Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire.