Despite size, Brand back to guard traditional centers


A look at the other project starters at center in the Eastern Conference:

Player, Team, Height

Kelly Olynyk, Celtics, 7-0

Brook Lopez, Nets, 7-0

Samuel Dalembert, Knicks, 6-11

Nerlens Noel, 76ers, 6-11

Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors, 7-0

Pau Gasol, Bulls, 7-0

Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers, 6-11

Andre Drummond, Pistons, 6-11

Roy Hibbert, Pacers, 7-2

Larry Sanders, Bucks, 6-11

Al Jefferson, Hornets, 6-10

Chris Bosh, Heat, 6-11

Nikola Vucevic, Magic, 7-0

Marcin Gortat, Wizards, 6-11

Elton Brand needed the Hawks.

The Hawks needed Elton Brand.

The mutual sentiments have the center back for a 16th NBA season in a role that may seem implausible considering his height and weight and the wear and tear on a 35-year-old body. Brand simply wasn’t ready to hang it up.

The Hawks, despite a roster with six other big men, needed someone capable of guarding the more traditional centers in the league. So, despite interest from as many as six other teams, Brand re-signed with the Hawks in the offseason.

The Hawks have Al Horford back as their starting center after he missed most of last season with a torn right pectoral muscle. The team has five other big men similar in their ability to play away from the basket. Although Brand is listed at 6-foot-9 and 254 pounds, his years of experience help him bang in the post with much bigger opponents.

“With Al back, I’m sure my minutes will shrink,” Brand said. “It will be more situational, but I don’t mind that. The game has changed over the years. There are less of those plodding big men in the post. I’m here to guard those guys.”

Brand signed a one-year, $2 million contract to return after one season with the Hawks. Last season, he appeared in 73 games (15 starts) and averaged 5.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and a team-leading 1.2 blocks in 19.4 minutes. At one point, he was the only healthy center on the roster after injuries to Horford, Gustavo Ayon and Pero Antic. During the stretch made eight consecutive starts and played over 40 minutes in back-to-back games against the Knicks and Bulls.

When the season was finished, including the disappointment of a first-round playoff loss to the Pacers, it didn’t take Brand long to take inventory. He could do it all over again.

“I wanted to see how my body felt,” Brand said. “My wife and kids supported me. They enjoy seeing daddy play against LeBron James and all those guys. That’s when it was a no-brainer to come here

“I was comfortable here. These are my teammates. We went to battle. We had a good playoff run, even with all the injuries. I didn’t want to build anywhere else. I didn’t want to learn a new system. If I had an opportunity to come back here, this is where I wanted to come. I wanted to be here with my guys.”

The veteran leadership of Brand was a plus for the Hawks. However, it was his on-court experience that made him a target to return. The names of the big men Brand has faced during his long career are a who’s who of NBA greats — Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon — roll off his tongue as he walks down memory lane.

Brand learned from each. Although he said he was “fatter” in his younger days and more capable of the physical pounding, he learned about positioning, angles and using help defense to his advantage.

“It’s amazing what Elton gets done,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He has a knack. He has a competitiveness and a toughness. His length is, whatever they list him at 6-foot-9, he’s so much bigger, longer and stronger. And he’s so smart. He’s very confident guarding traditional centers.”

That’s why Brand is back.

Brand is one of 10 players in NBA history to have at least 15,000 points, 8,000 rebounds, 2,000 assists, and 1,500 blocks. The others are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, O’Neal, David Robinson, Olajuwon, Robert Parish, Patrick Ewing and Elvin Hayes. He ranks 25th on the NBA all-time list with 1,795 career blocks.

Brand started at center in place of the rehabbing Horford in the Hawks’ exhibition opener Monday, a 93-87 win over the Pelicans. He had five points and six rebounds in 13 minutes, mostly matched against the Pelicans’ 7-foot center Omer Asik.

While Brand thought last season would be his swan song, he’s not about to say this will be his final season. He loved the adrenaline rush and competition of the playoffs. And there is work to be done here in mentoring the Hawks’ young centers.

“You want to build and compete. I’m not going to look at this year like it’s (the final one). I’ll re-evaluate everything — see how I feel, see how the young guys grow. Eventually my services are not going to be needed. We have a lot of talented big guys. I want these guys get better. I take pride in that.”