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October 03, 2019

Training camp notes: Al Horford leading by example as he adjusts to life with Sixers

How long does it take a player to settle into a leadership position with a new team? As Brett Brown noted at training camp on Thursday, that is hard to pin down with a number, and some players are going to seize the reins no matter where they are or how long they've been there.

With a history of leading at his previous two stops, Al Horford's name has already come up as the sort of guy who will emerge quicker than most as a leader in Philly.

"It's always, by a mile, actions that speak so much louder than words," Brown said. "Al's history and resume puts him high on an opportunity list, he's got a greater chance of being heard quickly because of who he is. What impresses me is how he talks to guys in practice, and he has a level of care and communication that is elite. His foundation and his starting point is high...I think he's going to be excellent at it.

This is not, however, a process that will just happen overnight. If Ben Simmons has been an example of how a player can change and grow as a leader with more time in a system, Horford is one of several examples of the integration process a player goes through on a new team. Even incumbents like Mike Scott have referred to training camp as a learning period, and they're already ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding the terminology the Sixers use. 

Brown has plenty of catchphrases he uses with the media that some of us try to (badly) replicate as we're recalling what he said — "Waterbug" guards and "Horses for courses" are two staples — and that habit pops up a lot in how the team communicates. To name a few:

  1. "Nash" — When a ballhandler keeps their dribble alive along the baseline to evaluate the defense, as its namesake Steve used to do on the Phoenix Suns
  2. "Malone line" — This is a spot on the floor about 12-15 feet away from the hoop where post-ups can be turned into quick face-up jumpers. Karl Malone scored a boatload of points in this fashion, and you've probably seen Joel Embiid deposit dozens of buckets in the same fashion.
  3. "Red" — Philly's way of calling for a defensive switch 

These concepts are very simple, and once you understand what the coach is talking about, having a shorthand for a spot or an action is helpful. But as Horford explained on Thursday afternoon, joining a new team means absorbing all of this new language, and that takes time even for a veteran, who says he's not focused much on the big picture as he immerses himself in the Sixers' culture.

"I have to learn the terminology and the plays and a lot of things we talked about over the summer, but it's different when we're here full speed and everything's going through," Horford said. "I feel kinda like a rookie a little bit just learning everything, so that's where my head's at."

There is a touch of humility there certainly. Horford may insist that he feels like a rookie, but his teammates have been raving about his impact on the gym all week, continually impressed with what he brings to the team as both a player and a person.

It's Horford's relationship with Embiid that everyone will be watching closely this year. The veteran big man now has an opportunity to work alongside the guy he stifled for years with the Boston Celtics, and the Sixers are turning into a jumbo team as most of the NBA goes smaller and smaller. Philly's frontcourt has an argument as the most interesting experiment any team is trying this season, right up there with blending the ball-dominant styles of James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston.

And Horford has been preparing for this partnership all summer, he says, by altering some of his offseason training to fit best next to the big fella.

"I focused more this year probably shooting more threes and driving the ball more out of the three-point line," Horford said Thursday. "That's probably the biggest difference that I did from summers before, understanding I'm going to have to be ready to shoot more threes and also be able to take the ball to the basket. 

The high-water mark for attempts from deep in Horford's career came in 2016-17, when he averaged 3.6 per game for the Boston Celtics. That number figures to climb even higher this season in order to open the floor for the likes of Embiid and Simmons.

Horford may not be the loudest guy in the world, but tailoring the way you play to make the game easier for your teammates will always get noticed, and the rave reviews continue to come in.

"Al's been great since he got here, he's been a great leader so far. Speaking up, helping us get to that championship-caliber team," Ben Simmons said. "He's been a great addition so far."

Other notes

Tobias Harris did not mince words when he was asked for his thoughts on changes in California that will allow college athletes to profit from their likeness.

"One hundred percent, I do believe college athletes should be getting paid. I've believed that for some years now," Harris said. "The excuse or the response of they're getting an academic scholarship, no, we're not rolling with that one. Corporations, NCAA corporation are making billions of dollars off of these young men playing, and they deserve to be paid. They deserve to get their check."

No argument on this end.