Sixers find their ‘compass’ in former Celtic Al Horford

Sixers find their ‘compass’ in former Celtic Al Horford

A few weeks ago, when the Sixers played the Suns, rookie Matisse Thybulle got in early foul trouble.

Frustrated, Thybulle sought out 13-year veteran Al Horford.

“What do you see? What do you feel?,” Horford asked the rookie before chatting up the officials.

Thybulle felt like he couldn’t touch anyone without getting a foul called.

So Horford, who’s built a respected relationship with the officials over the course of his 13 years in the league, asked the referee what he saw.

“Your elbow was too high,” Horford reported back, after Thybulle was called for an offensive foul, fighting for positioning with Ricky Rubio.

“Without him, I really wouldn’t have gotten any of that feedback,” an appreciative Thybulle said. “It’s been really cool for him to take on that role.”

This is just one of the countless intangibles Horford has already imparted on this Sixers squad.

Whether it’s singling out Tobias Harris for the way that he ran and spaced, allowing for Ben Simmons to get downhill and score a layup or pointing out an extra pass or box out from Raul Neto, Horford sees the importance in bringing attention to the little things that allow for a good team to develop into a great one.   

“Little things like that go a long way to let guys know that what they are doing is not necessarily for just them, but the whole group,” Harris said.

“That’s important because it makes people want to do the small things,” Josh Richardson said.

And one of the reasons that Horford is able to point out the little things is because of the knowledge he has of every position on the court, not just his.

“He’s so knowledgeable of the game and where everyone is and needs to be,” Harris said.

“He knows what I can do, what James (Ennis III) can do,” Furkan Korkmaz said. “It’s why he has a different feeling in the game. He can read his teammates well.”

“Since he’s got here, I’ve noticed, off the bat, how good of a mind he is. He really thinks the game,” Richardson said.

“He’s able to help everybody,” Kyle O’Quinn said. “He even helps [head coach Brett Brown] sometimes. We’re all lucky to have him around.”

Speaking of Brown, he’s far from shy when it comes to bragging about what the Sixers stole from the Boston Celtics, but it’s about much more than Horford’s talent on the court.

“He’s completely comfortable in his own skin,” Brown said. “When we have team meetings that are private, he can speak his piece. He doesn’t feel like he’s throwing anyone under the bus. He delivers it with a proper respect and tone, includes himself in stuff.”

“He’ll jump in and give advice to everyone,” Thybulle said. “He’ll go down the line and just knock down people, of what he thinks could help them or how they could help the team in different ways.”

That also goes for timeouts. Up or down, good or bad, Horford’s voice has been a constant.  

“He really goes out of his way, especially in timeouts, if there’s things that he sees, and he is a very detailed person.” Harris said. “It’s easy to communicate in timeouts when things are good, but when things aren’t good he’s always the guy to add in some positive way to get that going. He’s really been big at that.”

“Al's a veteran's vet. You can't really ask for a better leader for a team,” Richardson said. “He's always level-headed. He's fired up when he needs to be, but usually he just keeps it to a tone that everybody can relate to.”

“He’s a tremendous compass in the locker room, as it relates to what is our true north. He gets what’s most important at this stage,” Brown said.

Above all else, Horford sets an example for others to follow.

“He’s just a real role model, in terms of how he lives his life,” Harris said. “There’s no real ups and downs with him. In my opinion, he’s the definition of a consistent person — comes in everyday, same attitude, same spirit, win or loss. The way he shapes his day-to-day life is inspiring for real.”

 “We were on the plane one day, all talking and Kyle (O’Quinn) said something like ‘When God made you, he like really took his time, I’m going to make somebody really good at life,’” Harris recalled laughing. “And we were all cracking up, but were like actually, that is really true.”

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Sixers' Zhaire Smith is 'hunting 3s' in the G League

AP Images/Matt Rourke

Sixers' Zhaire Smith is 'hunting 3s' in the G League

Zhaire Smith pump faked, took two strong dribbles from the baseline to the rim, slammed the ball through the hoop and flexed his muscles. 

A casual fan settling in for the Delaware Blue Coats’ 119-109 win Monday afternoon over the South Bay Lakers at 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, would have seen a bouncy, athletic young player.

But, after making four of eight three-point shots Monday, Smith explained that he’s aiming to be more than that.

“I’m trying to hunt threes now, I’m not trying to go to the rim and dunk,” he said with a grin. “I’m being lazy now, trying to shoot the threes. Give me three-balls.”

The 20-year-old wing has shot 36.6 percent from three-point range in 18 games this season with the Blue Coats, though that number is skewed by a 4-for-18 start. He’s made 41.5 percent since Dec. 3.

Smith hasn’t appeared in an NBA game for the Sixers in his second professional season. He was preoccupied with recovering from a broken foot and a severe allergic reaction for much of his rookie year after being acquired by the Sixers in a draft-night trade.

“He’s expecting me to develop all around,” Smith said on Oct. 18 of Brett Brown’s plan for him. “Last year we tried to develop, but then obviously I had the setback. He feels like this is my rookie year, like this is [about] development.” 

Smith thinks he’s making progress.

I feel like I’ve improved a lot,” he said Monday. “Especially last year — last year was kind of like rehab. But looking back to my freshman year of college, I feel like I’ve made a big jump. I feel like I’m improving. … Shooting, ball handling and just being confident. Especially playing the guard position. Looking back at Texas Tech, I was playing the four and three. So, [now] I’m on the wing and I’m improving. It’s coming quickly.

Smith’s shot is one of the biggest differences in his game. He released the ball from over the top of his head in the summer of 2018.

Then, he compensated for his weight loss after the allergic reaction by moving the ball over to the right.

His current form involves a bit of a load back into the shot pocket, but it’s been working for him lately. 

He was able to produce shots from a variety of situations Monday — catching and firing off good passes, jab stepping or shot faking before releasing off bad ones.

“I thought Zhaire shot really well from three,” Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson said. “I thought his shots looked out of sync and out of rhythm. Recently, he’s not getting these catch and let ‘em go — he’s catch, hold it a second, jab step sort of stuff. But to me the more important part is he’s making them. His form looks good and he’s confident.

"We’ve gotta find more ways to get him easier catch and shoot, rhythm threes, but at the end of the day he’s knocking them down at a high rate lately, which is really good to see.”

As the Blue Coats prepared to take the floor for the start of the second half, assistant coach Xavier Silas approached Smith for a few words, which Smith quietly digested.

A couple of minutes later, Smith caught the ball in the left corner, faked a jumper and drove into the body of 6-foot-10 Kostas Antetokounmpo. His layup attempt glanced off the rim and out of bounds.

“Hey, Zhaire — that’s great,” assistant coach Isaiah Fox yelled out from the sidelines, rising from his seat. “That’s great! Do it again.” 

In the G League, Smith can get that kind of feedback and encouragement in an environment where his mistakes don’t jeopardize the Sixers’ chances of winning high-stakes games.

“[The coaches] always just tell me ‘be aggressive,’” he said.

It’s very possible Smith’s first extended opportunity in the NBA won’t come in Philadelphia. Though the Sixers decided to pick up his third-year option, it seems there is no place for him at the moment on the team’s bench. 

And, with the Feb. 6 trade deadline nearing, he’d appear to have some value for another team intrigued by his potential and curious if he can one day reach his high ambitions.

He claims he doesn’t have much time to follow the Sixers or worry about what their situation might mean for his future. 

“Focusing on what’s happening right now,” he said. “When I have an off day or something and I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch the Sixers. I try my best to watch them, but usually I’m busy.”

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Sixers’ bell ringing ceremony after win over Nets was especially entertaining

Sixers’ bell ringing ceremony after win over Nets was especially entertaining

The Sixers' ceremonial, celebratory miniature Liberty Bell does travel, even if they've gotten much more use out of it at Wells Fargo Center than on the road this season.

Brett Brown's preamble Monday before handing the bell off to Ben Simmons was especially entertaining. Simmons was the Sixers' bell ringer after his 34-point triple-double in a 117-11 win over the Nets, but Brown made sure to praise several others.

“Al Horford … with just some adult f---ing plays at the end," Brown said. "Holy s---. Really just great stuff.”

Brown isolated Mike Scott, too.

“And how ‘bout you? You were great tonight, Mike Scott.”

You can watch the full video below, courtesy of the Sixers' Twitter account.

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