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Al Horford, back and better than ever

After a sabbatical year in OKC, the big man is looking rejuvenated in training camp.

NBA: Boston Celtics-Media Day David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

At Media Day, President of Basketball Operations gushed about the return of Al Horford, saying, “bringing Al back is huge. His leadership is quiet, measured, and full of patience.”

In a later interview, Horford said, “I’d like to be more vocal.”

That might be the only moment of disagreement as the big man starts his second stint in Boston. “He looks lovely, fresh and looks rejuvenated,” head coach Ime Udoka said after Thursday’s practice. “We’re loving what we’re seeing from him.”

You can’t roll back the mileage on Horford’s 14-year career, but last year’s semi-sabbatical in Oklahoma City has apparently been a fountain of youth for the big man. The 35-year-old played only 28 games for the Thunder before being shut down at the end of March. General manager Sam Presti and Horford agreed to preserve the veteran’s body for a possible trade down the road. After Stevens moved from the bench to the front office, he quickly took advantage of the opportunity and swapped Kemba Walker for his former player.

Horford used that time off to not take a break from the NBA grind, but instead prepare for next year with the OKC staff. “This summer I was healthy. I was able to get after it in the weight room; conditioning, start building it on the court like I wanted to,” Horford said. “So, going into this year, I feel really good. I feel as good as I’ve felt, probably my NBA career, to be honest.”

Those dividends are already starting to pay off. According to Udoka, Horford is making a huge case to start with his “versatility with what he can do as far as pass the ball, handle it, and shoot it. He’s an asset (with the starting lineup), but it’s also about finding balance with our bench as well.”

Udoka has also stressed in training camp utilizing Horford in mismatches after missing out on those opportunities in Philadelphia with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid drawing opposing teams’ biggest defenders. Whether that’s starting with Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown or supporting the second unit, Horford will again be a key cog this season.

When Horford signed with the Celtics five years ago, he was marquee free agent still in his prime. As the backbone of two straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, Horford played arguably his the best basketball of his career in green.

He returns to Boston as more of a mentor in his fifteenth season. Gone are the days of playing with Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. Today, he struggles with not referring to Stevens as “Coach.” Instead of bringing Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum along in their development, he now recognizes what they do well on the court and is here to complement their play. And once the quiet leader in the locker room, Horford has taken a more active involvement with the team.

“It’s really just saying what I see and speaking to the guys when I need to. In the past, (I) kinda got focused on (myself) and leading by example, but now, I’m more comfortable,” Horford said. “A lot of the guys, I know them well. It’s just easier to talk to them, let them know what I feel about something. I feel like I’ve been more vocal this time around.”

Since Horford left, two players have worn #8. Two have donned #13. But in his two years away, no one touched #42. It’s as if he was always destined to return and now, thankfully, he’s back.

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