With NBA title, Al Horford will stand alone among Atlanta-era Hawks draft picks

Billy Knight's final draft picks were Florida's Al Horford (left) and Texas A&M's Acie Law in 2007. Both were key in the Hawks' playoff series against Boston, and Horford made the NBA All-Rookie team. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC file)

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Billy Knight's final draft picks were Florida's Al Horford (left) and Texas A&M's Acie Law in 2007. Both were key in the Hawks' playoff series against Boston, and Horford made the NBA All-Rookie team. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC file)

Al Horford can’t become the best player drafted by the Atlanta-era Hawks to win an NBA championship. That honor still goes to Pau Gasol even if Horford’s Celtics beat the Warriors. The Hawks picked Gasol No. 3 overall in 2001, and he went on to win two rings with the Lakers. Gasol is a shoo-in to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame once he’s eligible next year.

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But, as long-suffering Hawks fans know, Gasol never played for the team because general manager Pete Babcock traded him on draft night. The Hawks got back Marietta’s Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a good player who couldn’t get the Hawks to the playoffs in two full seasons. Set aside the Gasol technicality, and Horford, selected No. 3 overall by Billy Knight in 2007, has a chance to become the best player drafted by the Hawks to win a title since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1968.

It will be hard to do. The Celtics are facing a hardened Warriors group in the NBA Finals. They’ve won three NBA championships and two Western Conference titles. The Warriors have the best shooter of all time, Steph Curry, and one of the best defenders in the league, Draymond Green. Klay Thompson is back in form after missing two seasons with injuries.

“They’re a great team,” Horford said before the Celtics and Warriors opened the Finals late Thursday in San Francisco. “They’ve been doing this a lot of years. The way they move the ball, the way they play, it presents a lot of problems.”

Horford, Boston’s starting power forward, is a big part of the potential solution. He turns 36 years old Friday but remains a good and consistent all-around player. Through the first three playoff rounds, the Celtics outscored their opponents by 126 points with Horford on the court. That’s the second-best mark among all players behind Horford’s teammate, Jayson Tatum.

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Horford is a key part of Boston’s physical and relentless defense. His role on offense is secondary to Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but Horford had the best offensive rating among Boston’s starters in the first three rounds. And Horford still can go off when it’s needed. See his 30-point eruption when the Celtics evened the series against the defending-champion Bucks in the East semifinals.

Horford has been good for a long time and has played on a lot of good teams, but this is his first trip to the NBA Finals. He had played in 141 postseason games without making it, the most in NBA history. Horford also is the first player from the Dominican Republic to play in the Finals.

“No one deserves it more than (Horford),” Brown said. “His energy. His demeanor. Coming in every day and being a professional, taking care of his body, being a leader. I’m proud to be able to share this with a veteran, a mentor, a brother, a guy like Al Horford.”

“You keep an open mind and realize you have to change, and if you don't change, you will almost become irrelevant."

- Al Horford, who is playing in the NBA Finals

I’m guessing plenty of Hawks fans will pull for Horford despite their distaste for the Celtics. He served the Hawks with distinction for nine seasons, with All-Star selections in four of them. It wasn’t Horford’s fault that the Hawks couldn’t get past LeBron James. No one could do that in the East.

Also, Horford’s departure to the Celtics as a free agent in 2016 wasn’t all his doing. That skid was greased once Mike Budenholzer signed Dwight Howard. (Budenholzer has since proved himself to be a championship coach, but he wasn’t much of a chief basketball executive.) Horford signed with the Celtics for four years, one less than the Hawks were offering, and declared his intention to bring an 18th NBA championship to the franchise.

The best Horford and the Celtics could do was two East finals. (LeBron set the ceiling, as always.) Horford signed with the 76ers in July 2019. They traded him to the Thunder on draft night in 2020. Horford was in purgatory with the tanking Thunder. He wasn’t washed up. He just needed to rejoin a winning outfit.

That happened when the Celtics traded for Horford last summer. He said he got the news while in the car with his family on the way to visit his mother in Atlanta.

“It was a happy time for our family at that time, especially for me, because it’s where I wanted to be,” Horford said.

Horford has made it this long in the league by altering his game. His career trajectory mirrors the changing role of big men in the NBA. Horford said “bully ball” in the post was on its way out when he was drafted. Centers who stretch the floor with shooting were becoming the norm. Horford had to expand his shooting range and figure out how to guard players on the perimeter.

He did both. At one point Horford ranked among the best midrange shooters and “switchable” defensive big men in the league. Horford said that after he suffered a torn pectoral muscle during the 2011-12 season, ex-Hawks GM Rick Sund persuaded him that moving his game outside was in his best interests.

“‘You have to change the way you play,’” Horford recalled Sund telling him. “‘You are not going to make it that many years.’ Because I was very physical, trying to post up against these guys who had 20, 30 pounds on me.”

Eventually Horford became an effective 3-point shooter, too. He said Budenholzer and Sund’s successor as GM, Danny Ferry, were the catalyst behind that change. In Boston, then-coach Brad Stevens gave Horford the task of handling the ball more as a playmaker while also shooting from the perimeter and rolling to the basket.

“You keep an open mind and realize you have to change, and if you don’t change, you will almost become irrelevant,” Horford said.

Billy Knight’s best draft pick is still relevant after 15 years in the NBA. The Hawks have yet to make the NBA Finals since moving to Atlanta. Horford is the best Atlanta-era Hawks draft pick to play for the team who’s made it this far.

Since moving to Atlanta, the Hawks have drafted 131 players who ended up playing in the NBA. Ten of those players won an NBA title. Gasol is one of three from that group who were traded before playing for the Hawks (Billy Thompson and Damion James are the others). Hawks draft picks Steve Bracey (1975 Warriors) and Butch Lee (1980 Lakers) played bit parts for championship teams.

Five former Hawks draft picks played for the team and then went on to play major roles for NBA champions. Butch Beard was a starter for the 1975 Warriors alongside future Hall of Fame honoree Rick Barry. Jason Terry was a sensational sixth man for the 2011 Mavericks. They bested LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the Finals. Jeff Teague signed with the Bucks in April 2021 and backed up point guard Jrue Holiday during Milwaukee’s NBA Finals victory over the Suns.

None of those five players were as good as Horford. He’s making a case for the Hall of Fame with his consistency and longevity. An NBA championship would add to that resume. I say the Warriors will win in seven games. But I’ll be pulling for Horford.