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Al Horford, unsung superstar

He doesn’t get the attention that other stars do, but he’s going to make the Celtics a lot better.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again. Not enough attention is being given to the fact that the Celtics landed Al Horford. This guy is one of the best players in the NBA, and we get to watch him play in Boston now.

The Al Horford signing was sandwiched between the disappointment of not making a big trade on draft night and the disappointment of not landing Kevin Durant. So he got about one day of our much deserved attention and then faded into the background.

Oddly enough, that’s somewhat poetic for his career. At Florida he won 2 National Championships but was viewed as the second star behind Joakim Noah. In Atlanta he was part of some very good Hawks teams but was always behind Josh Smith and Joe Johnson when it came to attention. It never seems to bother him though. All he’s done is quietly gone about his business and do all the things that coaches love and fans all too often overlook.

Bottom line: The guy is an underappreciated superstar. Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to one of the best writers in the business, Zach Lowe, from this Grantland article back in January of 2015.

When he’s healthy, Horford is a legitimate NBA superstar — a chameleon who is good at everything, great at some things, and always flying beneath the radar. He doesn’t pile up insane numbers, hog the ball, or appear in national TV commercials. He is concerned only with winning, even if the path there involves sacrificing shots to focus on passing, setting good picks, and battling 7-footers under the basket.

“He’s just so unselfish,” Budenholzer says. “I honestly feel fortunate to coach him.”

“He is our cornerstone,” says Kyle Korver. “His example — it’s what the Hawks are. Or what we’re trying to be.”

I don’t know about you, but when I hear those words, I can just imagine Brad Stevens simply lighting up like a Christmas tree when he thinks about coaching this guy.

Al Horford is good at everything and can fit into any system and thrive. He’s especially adept at pick and roll, which is a staple of every NBA playbook ever. There are so many variations that you can run out of the pick and roll that they would never fit into any one coach’s binder. But the maximize the effectiveness of those variations require creativity and savvy. Horford has all of that and more.

He can read a defense and make the extra pass (he’s really great at passing on the move). He can roll hard to the basket for a strong dunk. He can step back and drain a midrange jumper. In recent years he’s even been extending his range to the 3-point line. And we’re not talking about “launch-and-groan” production like we’ve seen from Jared Sullinger the last few years. We’re talking a guy that hit 34% last season and 39% in the playoffs.

But numbers are never going to tell the whole story with Horford, in part because I haven’t yet seen a stat that captures intangibles like “setting perfect, timely screens.” And we haven’t even talked about his defense yet. While stats can’t tell the whole story on defense, they do paint some of the picture. Let’s go to ESPN’s stats for an analysis.

Horford ranks as one of the league’s best post defenders, as shown through video review. Horford defended 262 direct posts in the 2015-16 regular season (that's a post-up attempt in which a player shoots, is fouled, turns the ball over or passes to a shooter), more than any other player in the NBA.

He allowed players to score 0.84 points per direct post. Among the top 12 players with the most direct posts defended, only defensive player of the year runner-up Draymond Green allowed fewer points per direct post (0.72).

Horford had a career-high 121 blocked shots in 2015-16 and will fill a need there; the Celtics ranked 22nd in the NBA in blocked shots. Last season was the first in which he played all 82 games.

Adding Horford to a team that already was one of the best defending teams is almost unfair. When you consider that paint protection was one of this team’s biggest weaknesses last year, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m almost giddy with anticipation with what his presence will mean next season.

Last, but not least, the Celtics have added a legitimate, long-time All-Star veteran to the locker room. I’ve never heard a single negative word said about the man. If anything, people go out of their way to glow with appreciation for who he is, not just as a player, but as a man and a human being.

The Celtics have a lot of great personalities already. From Jae Crowder’s “won’t back down from anyone” swagger, to Isaiah Thomas’ playful, Napoleon Complex, to Avery Bradley’s quiet attack-dog mentality. But Horford seems cut from a similar cloth as Tim Duncan—quiet, humble, yet commanding in his presence just from the respect that everyone has for him. He may not give the buzzworthy quotes that Evan Turner provided last year, but I’m pretty sure that he’ll make a lasting impression on several of the young players on the Celtics roster.

The Celtics missed out on Kevin Durant, but that was always a long shot, and it was a testament to simply be in the final running. The Celtics haven’t made a splashy trade with all their trade chips as of yet. But do not overlook the fact that “fireworks” happened right around the 4th of July this offseason.

Horford routinely operates under the radar, as much as an NBA superstar can. But let us take a break from the rumor-mongoring and show some attention and praise for our huge offseason pickup.

Al Horford is an amazing basketball player, and he’s going to make the Celtics a lot better.

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