Horford Still Leading Hawks Despite Injury

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Al Horford’s season-ending torn right pectoral muscle was a blow to the Atlanta Hawks. Nearly two months since the big man underwent surgery, his team is beginning to feel revitalized by the increasing presence of their sidelined leader.

Horford was averaging 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game when he suffered the injury on December 26 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the time, the Hawks (26-30) were 16-13 and ranked third in the Eastern Conference. Since then they have dropped to the eighth seed, going 10-17 in his absence.

The Hawks make no secret they miss Horford. Although they will not have him back on the court this season, they are finding motivation by his continued leadership, visits and encouragement.

“Every time when he comes into the locker room, he talks about basketball and says to keep fighting,” Dennis Schroder told Basketball Insiders. “No matter what happens with injuries, [he tells us] to stay together as a team and try to win games.”

Horford began his rehab last week. He posted a video on Instagram with the caption, “First Rehab session. Done with recovery phase, now getting mobility back.”

Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said that Horford is “progressing on the expected track” and spoke about hoping to have the veteran center back for next season.

Horford’s teammates understand it wasn’t always easy for him to be around the team, given the pain of the injury and the difficulty of being unable to play. They tried to carry on the standard he had previously established for the group, and warmly welcomed him back when he made his first return to see the team.

“The precedent that he set for the bigs when he was here, how well he played, definitely we want to follow his lead and keep that up,” Elton Brand said. “When he comes around, it brightens our mood, brightens our day. It’s good to see him. He came to an event we had, he came to an event or two, he’s still part of this family. Even though he’s out for the season and he’s been out a long time, seeing him it puts a smile on our faces.”

Budenholzer had been learning from Horford in his first season as Hawks head coach. They discussed the team and how he could utilize Horford and Paul Millsap together when healthy. Now that he is injured, Budenholzer still calls on Horford for his knowledge given his seven years of experience on the Hawks. He also appreciates the relationship Horford has with his teammates, specifically his ability to both lift them up and stay on them to succeed.

“I told him he’s an assistant coach now; he needs to come out and tell me who we need to sub and what plays he needs to run,” said Budenholzer, continuing in jest, “He said he wasn’t interested. We love having him around as much as possible.”

Horford’s presence also brings a sense of positivity and professionalism. This has been important for the other players to see while shorthanded and facing adversity.

“He’s got a great spirit and just a great way about him,” Budenholzer said. “He’s kind of a quiet competitor and that’s kind of the spirit we want our group to compete but do it in a classy way. He’s just a class player, a class person.”

The Hawks hope Horford will be around more often in the second half of the season as he continues his rehab. It won’t be the same as playing with him on the court, but simply seeing him lets them know to keep grinding toward a spot in the playoffs.

Said Schroder, “Everyone’s happy when he’s around.”