by Abe Schwadron / @abe_squad

For Alfred Joel Horford Reynoso, basketball is a family affair. Father Tito became the League’s first Dominican-born player when he was drafted by the Bucks in 1988, and spent parts of three seasons in Milwaukee and Washington as a 7-1 center. Uncle Kelly balled at Florida Atlantic in the early ‘90s. And brother Jon helped Michigan to an NCAA Tournament bid last season as a reserve forward.

So it should come as no surprise that Al Horford is the glue that keeps the often-dysfunctional Hawks family together—and consistently in the top third of the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta made Horford the No. 3 selection in ’08 after Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, and since being installed as a front-line starter from the jump, the former Gator has put up 10+ ppg and 9+ rpg in all four of his professional seasons. He’s steadily improved his scoring numbers each year, increasing his nightly production from 10.1 ppg as a rookie to a career-best 15.3 ppg on 56 percent field goal shooting in ’10-11, to go along with a top-10 finish in total rebounds and an 80 percent free-throw clip.

Not impressed by his stat line?

Consider, Horford trolls the paint for a team that works outside in, rarely runs plays for him and constantly relies on him to bail out below-average perimeter defenders. Plus, he’s as reliable as they come, playing 35 minutes a night at a premium position (arguably not his natural one) and appearing in no less than 77 games in three of his four seasons to date.

Horford’s even demeanor doesn’t demand attention like an Amar’e or a Garnett. His jersey isn’t a popular sell. He doesn’t have “swag,” or whatever the kids call it these days. Heck, he has fewer Twitter followers than Marc Gasol.

Simply put, Al’s game isn’t sexy.

Which is good, because if there’s been a criticism of his team over the past half-decade, it’s an unwillingness to get dirty. But the 25-year-old has quietly made back-to-back All-Star games as the lone physical presence on the Hawks, his dirty work allowing the rest of Atlanta’s roster to do what they do (shelve the merits their “doings” for another debate). He’s become a double-double machine without demanding the ball on offense and with little help on the boards, as ATL finished in the bottom half of the NBA in rebounding last season.

Not only that, Horford found time between anchoring Atlanta’s defense and attacking the offensive boards to hand out 3.5 assists per game last season. Among Hawks returning in ‘12, that was second—second!—on the team. And that’s no fluke. Flip around League Pass long enough on a weeknight and you’ll see Horford running the break once or twice a game, and looking comfortable doing so.

Aside from his incredible skill in an Incredible Hulk’s body, what’s reassuring about Horford is that he dominates inferior competition. He can recognize a mismatch and take advantage, even in limited touches. In ’10-11, he averaged 22 and 14 against the Warriors, 23/10 vs the Suns, 21/11 vs the T-Wolves, 19/11 vs the Wizards and 18/10 vs the Cavs. He doesn’t just beat low-grade centers, he destroys them.

Granted, crushing the League’s garbage is nothing to boast about, but in the words of Juelz Santana, “No Days Off.” When the rest of the NBA is taking a night to rest, Al Horford is putting in work, making his teammates look good first and getting his where he can.

And when the big challenges come, he more than holds his own. Over the last two games of Atlanta’s first-round Playoff upset of Dwight Howard and the Magic in ‘11, Horford averaged 9.5, 13 and 6—typical Horford games.

The kind of games you don’t notice until you study the box score the next day. The kind you might miss while watching Josh Smith’s SportsCenter highlight or counting up Joe Johnson’s shot totals. The kind that might make Tito, Jon and Uncle Kelly smile, and leave the rest of us wondering who checks who at the Horford family reunion.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.