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Al Horford is a ninja unicorn

He may not be the first player you think of when you talk NBA unicorns, but he’s becoming his own breed.

Getty Images/Peter Rogers Illustrations

The 2015 season was Al Horford last with the Atlanta Hawks. He played in all 82 games, the Hawks won 60 games and had the #1 seed going into the playoffs, and they made their first ever Eastern Conference Finals. (They were swept by LeBron; so it goes.)

I mention this particular season because this was the first time in Horford’s career, dating back to 2007-08, when Horford averaged 3+ three point attempts per game. Prior to 2015-16, Horford hadn’t even averaged one 3PA per game in his career. In 2015-16, he tripled his three point attempts, shooting as many threes as Tobias Harris, Rudy Gay, and Jimmy Butler, all perimeter players whose job included shooting from outside.

In 2015-16, only four Centers averaged at least 30 minutes per game, and 1+ 3PA per game: Boogie Cousins (3.2), Al Horford (3.1), Anthony Davis (1.8), and Karl-Anthony Towns (1.1). Last year, 8 Centers averaged 2+ 3PA: Boogie (6.1 per game, lol), Kristaps Porzingis, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and Anthony Davis. This is a list of Unicorns: the new Bigs who can shoot like Wings, dribble like Guards, and score like Whatever They Want. Giannis is the epitome of this group (as soon as his outside shot develops), and Deandre Ayton is the newest member.

(Off the top of my head, the only true Centers who’ve maintained their value since 2015-16 are Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, and Deandre Jordan. Andre Drummond of the Pistons is now attempting threes, but he’s definitely more akin to Dwight Howard than to a Unicorn.)

In 2015-16, Al Horford tripled his three point attempt rate and the Hawks won 60 games. One year later he was the starting PF/C for the Boston Celtics and the NBA had changed forever. Steph Curry’s three point revolution had begun, and Bigs were now shooting from deep. In fact, Golden State’s victory of math over tradition has so utterly conquered the league that Bigs are now expected to be able to shoot from outside. Teams with traditional Centers, like Detroit and Washington, are considered to be at a disadvantage, by default, because their Bigs can’t space the floor like one of the new Unicorns can.

(By the way: the coach of the 2015-16 Hawks, who won 60 games, the #1 seed, and had Al Horford shooting threes like he was a Small Forward, is Mike Budenholzer. He’s currently the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Guess who his starting Center is? Brook Lopez, a 7-footer who’s averaging 7+ 3PA per game so far this season.)

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

We rarely speak about Al Horford as a Unicorn, even though he’s a Big who can space the floor. Al’s a bit older (he’s 32) and he’s not really a splashy guy: he’s considered more of a solid, foundational player, someone who can lift the rest of the team up by playing smart, limiting mistakes, and facilitating on both ends of the court.

Since coming to Boston, Horford’s averaged 4+ assists per game, 7ish rebounds, and 1+ blocks. His points per game have diminished, along with his shot attempts and shooting ratios, EXCEPT for his 3PT%—last season he averaged 43% from deep. That was FIFTH BEST IN THE ENTIRE NBA, out of guys who played at least 50 games, averaged at least 30 minutes per game, and made at least three 3PA per game. The only guys better than him were Otto Porter, Jr. (44% from three), Klay Thompson (44 3PT%), Joe Ingles (44 3PT%), and Jayson Tatum (43 3PT%). So, Al Horford, a verified Big, is one of the best long-range shooters in the NBA. Sounds like a Unicorn to me!

If we take Horford’s 3-year-averages from 2015-16 through last season, we get a line like this: 30+ minutes per game, 10+ field goal attempts, 14+ points per game, 3+ 3PA per game, 7+ rebounds per game, and 4+ assists per game. Only six players matched or exceeded that line in 2017-18: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Jokic, Blake Griffin, Boogie, and Marc Gasol. Only Boogie and Big Spain also averaged 1+ Block per game, like Al Horford.

Horford’s line right now, this season, through 4 games is 29.9 MPG, 10+ PPG, 4.5+ 3PA, 7+ RPG, and 4+ APG. Only LeBron, Sergeant Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and Embiid are equaling or exceeding that. Al Horford is providing a floor that’s equal to many other players’ ceilings.

The Boston Celtics are still figuring things out. The additions of a healthy Kyrie and a still-playing-off-the-rust Gordon Hayward have been as difficult as most additions: the Heat didn’t gel for awhile after Bron and Bosh joined Wade; the Warriors needed a sec to adjust to Kevin Durant; Jimmy Butler and the TimberBulls never really coalesced into a team last season; and, hell, neither did the Thunder with PG13 and Hoodie Melo. Just because you add good, even elite, players to your team doesn’t mean it’s going to work out right away, if at all.

The power of Al Horford is that he doesn’t require the flash and the attention and the shot attempts. (His shot attempts have gone down each season he’s been in Boston.) He’s a Ninja Unicorn, if you’ll allow it. He’s quiet, he’s ruthless, he’s efficient—he’s currently playing the fourth most minutes on the Celtics, but only taking the fifth most shots (9.8 FGA per game). The last time Horford averaged less than 10 shots a game was a decade ago (we won’t count his injury shortened season because it was a torn pec and that is GROSS! to think about). Name me another elite player who doesn’t need at least 12 shots per game.

Meanwhile, Horford has the second best field goal percentage on the team for guys playing at least 20 minutes; he’s attempting more threes than Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward (red flag?); he’s second in rebounds; he’s second in assists; and, he’s averaging nearly 2 blocks per game. He was on the All Defense team last year, and All NBA in 2010-11. He’s good AF.

Horford doesn’t get a lot of press, and his style of play is somewhat invisible: always there, but not scoring as much as other elite players. He does all the other little things, though: grab boards, make passes, defend the rim, defend the line, and try not to make mistakes. He’s basically a Unicorn without the shot attempts, which is perhaps the perfect role for a savvy veteran who’s never needed the limelight. His Florida championship team was the first team EVER to win back to back NCAA championships with the same five guys. Joakim Noah was on that team; he’s now been waived by the Knicks and may never play in the NBA again. Does anyone think Al Horford seems close to retirement?

Trading for Kyrie and signing Hayward were good decisions made by a smart front office in Boston (always remember: they tried to trade four 1st round draft picks for Justise Winslow!). But, signing Horford may be the best move they’ve made since trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Al Horford lets the rest of your team work; without him and his presence, you’d have one more frustrated mouth to feed on a team that might already have too many stars. And, Horford is definitely a star, it’s just that nobody thinks about him that way.

Other Unicorns score more, and they’re personified by the wrathful Greek God of Vengeance, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Brow in Nawlins. (Does anyone have money on a Pelicans vs Bucks NBA Finals? What’s the line?) But, Horford wasn’t a Unicorn for most of his career, and then bam! He changed into a Big who shoots threes, and can run, and can pass, and is still able to defend at a high level.

He’s a top 60 player in fantasy basketball, by the way. He shoots as much as JJ Barea and Kelly Oubre, Jr., and those dudes don’t even start! Horford has the highest player rating on the Celtics in ESPN basic, but he’s the fourth most owned. I bet that continues through the season, too, and it’ll mainly be due to his points per game. For instance, Al Horford is less owned than Lou Williams, another guy who doesn’t start, but Sweet Lou gets those buckets. It’s the points that get you noticed, but it’s the other stuff that keeps you in the game.

Horford’s all around excellence is overshadowed by his teammates, and by his own willingness to defer on scoring. Ironically, that refusal to demand more shot attempts is the reason he can’t be considered a true Unicorn, even though every other part of his game suggests he should be.

Unicorns like to be admired, Horford only wants to win.

Ninja.