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Al Horford's face-up game mastery

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Seeing is believing when discussing the potency of Al Horford's offensive game. We break down the footwork and jab steps that make him such a tough cover when turning and facing his opponent.

Kevin C. Cox

Al Horford has been with the Atlanta Hawks since the 2007-08 NBA season, when the roster had an under-30 Mike Bibby and Tyronn Lue. He's been a steady frontcourt presence through the Joe Johnson/Josh Smith era. He is now the longest-tenured Hawks player and face of the franchise after putting up career numbers last season.

17.4 points per game and 56 percent true shooting percentage is proof that Horford is a legitimate scoring threat. He's a great finisher at the rim, where he made 71 percent of his field goals according to, but he's one of the most mesmerizing players in the NBA when he's turning and facing against his defender.

His moves are decisive and crisp. His defenders? Off-balance and twitchy trying to read Horford in isolation. He locks up defenders with his jab step and clears space for himself with his swing through. He can pop up for a jumper or drive to the rim once his defenders' legs get wobbly. He's an overlooked beast of a frontcourt player, not only in the East, but in the entire NBA.

Defenders can't leave him open space to work with. Here, Greg Monroe sags off Horford.


Horford catches the ball and reads that Monroe isn't trying to close out. This is a mistake on Monroe's part. Horford immediately puts up the open jumper instead of going to his array of face-up moves. Because Horford is such a proficient mid-range shooter -- he shot 42 percent from 10-23 feet last year and 49 percent in 2010-11, his last healthy season, per Basketball-Reference -- this shot is automatic.



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Not every defender makes this mistake, of course, but Horford is great at creating his own space. Here, Roy Hibbert crowds Horford, taking away the jumper with a tight defensive stance.


But Horford doesn't put the ball on the floor to create space. Instead he clears out space with a sharp jab step, using his elbows and footwork. Hibbert shifts back:


The ball never touches the floor, but Hibbert shifted back enough to give Horford an uncontested jumper. Hibbert was once in a perfect defensive stance on Horford, anchored on top of the free throw line. Now his back foot is planted near the middle of the key and he has no chance to challenge the jumper:


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There are a number of "trademark" moves that we associate with players in the NBA. Horford's fantastic at swinging his arms through and faking a drive to create space for himself:


It's a subtle move, but it's essential to how Horford operates from outside the paint. It locks up defenders who are trying to predict what comes next. He hits Darrell Arthur with the "Horford swing through" and finds space for himself yet again:


Arthur's balance is gone, and Horford is able to drive straight by him to the rim for a layup:




Video of the play:

Horford chews up defenders because he's taking the face-up talents of elite perimeter players to defenders accustomed to playing at the rim. Once he finds an opening, he's great at recognizing and attacking it. Greg Stiemsma does a good job of closing out of Horford after the catch here:


But Horford still clears space for himself with a jab step and pump fake. Stiemsma bites on the fake and Horford blows by him for a dunk:




Video of the play:

Even when a defender does everything right to stay in front of Horford, things can still go terribly wrong for him. The Bulls do a good job of rotating in front of Horford after he pops to the free throw line after setting a screen. Kirk Hinrich slides in front of him, buying Horford's former college teammate, Joakim Noah, enough time to pick Horford up:




Noah uses his length to stay in range to challenge Horford if he shoots while also opening his stance to defend the drive. Should be good, right? Nope. Three jab steps and one step back later, and that's two points on the board for Atlanta:


Video of the cheat codes play:

Not convinced Horford is one of the premier face-up players in the NBA? Here's a couple minutes of him demolishing players around the league:

The Atlanta Hawks have one of the most refined offensive players in the NBA in Al Horford for the low price of $12 million per year through the 2015-16 season. Using his footwork and touch, he's efficient around the rim, can stretch the defense out to mid-range and can create his own shot. He's a pleasure to watch and he's a nightmare to defend.

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