A quick study
Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 12:05 a.m.
Tito Horford left his son some valuable advice before he left for Florida.
AT A GLANCE
Al Horford arrived at campus last summer as a mid-range level recruit, not quite a McDonald's All-American, but renowned enough to make top 100 lists on websites of several recruiting services. He spurned a chance to play at Michigan for the sunshine.
So when Horford left Grand Ledge, Mich., Tito, a former NBA center, told his son not to expect too much, too soon.
"He's the one who told me you've got to know the role on your team," Horford said. "He told me, 'you have a bunch of guys that can score. Go out there and focus on playing defense.' ''
Fast-forward to January and Horford is playing more than he originally envisioned - a result of a few breaks and injuries, but mostly hard work. Horford will make his seventh straight start at center tonight when Florida plays Tennessee at the O'Connell Center. And so far, the 6-foot-8 freshman has shown no signs of being intimidated by the physical play in the Southeastern Conference.
In three SEC games, Horford is averaging close to a double-double (9.7 points, 8.0 rebounds) and leads the Gators this season with 20 blocked shots. Coaches have been equally impressed with his ability to prepare and adjust in game situations. It's a big reason why Florida coach Billy Donovan picked Horford to replace Adrian Moss in the starting lineup when recurring back spasms forced Moss to the bench.
"He's got a really, really good feel and understanding (of the game)," Donovan said. "The thing that I've tried to get across to the rest of the freshmen is that Al is like a sponge. He absorbs everything you say. It's maybe helped him where he lacks in certain experiences that he has not had a chance to be a part of."
Not that the self-effacing Horford is ready to take any of the credit for his hard work. When asked if he felt the game was slowing down for him, Horford responded, "I think so. I think we're getting more comfortable with each other and playing well as a team."
Horford learned basketball in his native Dominican Republic. His dad, a 7-foot-1 center at the University of Miami who went on to play three NBA seasons in Milwaukee and Washington, placed him in a basketball academy in Puerta Plata when Al was seven. It was the same basketball academy where Tito learned the game.
In the Dominican, Al played against some talented youth players, including Louisville All-America candidate Francisco Garcia.
"It's a good level, but it's not like here," Horford said. "It was not like a college level."
Al also played baseball in the baseball-mad Dominican. He was a first baseman, but never seriously considered baseball as a career.
By the time he was 14, Horford moved with his dad to Grand Ledge, Mich., for an opportunity to gain exposure as a basketball player in America. Cold winters were new to him. So was English. Horford said he picked up phrases the summer before ninth grade but didn't really feel comfortable speaking the language until his freshman year was over.
"You just pick up different things through conversations," Horford said.
In Grand Ledge, Horford developed into a dependable post player with his rebounding and shot-blocking, traits that have carried over to his freshman year at Florida.
"When you are out there, you're trying to get every rebound you can," Horford said. "That's the kind of mindset you have to have."
Teammates have been impressed with Horford's preparation and work ethic in practice. Senior forward David Lee has taken both Horford and freshman center Joakim Noah under his wing.
"His maturity level is key," Lee said. "He's got great talent, so he's going to be a tremendous player here, but the fact that he's doing it this year, the reason why all of our freshmen are doing what they are doing is because they have been humble, they have taken a business-like approach."
"He's going to be a really good player because of his mentality," Donovan said. "When you take guys of equal talent level coming out of high school, what separates one guy from the next is their makeup and their mentality. Al is a totally team-oriented guy, he's very unselfish, he listens, he tries to do exactly what you tell him to do. He's different in terms of his makeup."
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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