There are two squads I’ve seen this year who have struck me as match up problems for any team with length, skill, and athleticism–Atlanta and Orlando. Atlanta is young, but immensely talented and the addition of Mike Bibby was something that can’t be understated. Mike is a straight up leader in the clutch. He hit a big shot Saturday late which helped the Hawks pull out a win against the flat Sixers (Mo Cheeks’ words) and salvage the home and home. I spoke with three of their young players, the aforementioned Bibby and former All Star combo guard turned TV analyst, Steve Smith as well.
I was impressed how focused this squad is as they make that final push to get in. The experience gained will help tremendously. Atlanta is almost a mirror image of Philly (youth) and very hungry to make a league wide impact right here and right now. You could sense in the warm-ups that emotionally this team was ready for the get back. I have to say that of all the players I’ve seen this year, Joe Johnson is definitely one of the best all around. His ball skills are unquestionably above average and he also bangs down low to secure and create possessions for his young team to extend the game. He’s another one of those reticent cats whose skills break sound even though he’s still relatively unknown (to the average fan). I hope ATL’s brass keeps this squad together for fans deserve to witness the ascension of this franchise from the old Omni ashes where ‘Nique used to double pump rise and throw it down violently on everyone. Mike Woodson has been catching wreck all season long, but is proving he is a very capable coach by helping this team turn the corner. The Atlanta Hawks are very professional and are putting something together fast…which only proves the league is gonna be alright.
Here’s a couple q+a’s.
MT: Tell me about your rookie year.
Al Horford: It’s been a good year. We’ve had high expectations as a team and we’re competing for the playoffs.
MT: What were the early challenges coming from a winning program Florida to a rebuilding franchise in Atlanta?
AH: It’s definitely different just as far as the amount of games we’ve played and the level of competition. I think it’s important for me to move on whether we win or lose quickly.
MT: Are you the rookie of the year?
AH: I hope so. At this point, I’m focused on this team making the playoffs and hopefully with me being a part of that I’ll be in position to be Rookie of the Year.
MT: The Hawks are beginning to gel as a team, what are some of the conversations going on amongst your teammates to help get this team into the playoffs?
AH: Having guys like Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson…they keep harping that we have to take care of business and we have to get this done. They really put in our heads of what playoff basketball really is because none of us really have that experience so we’re trying to get to that level.
MT: Your mom was a journalist. Is that something you are interested in becoming?
AH: Yeah. I majored in communications at Florida. I have about a year left. It’s something I definitely want to pick up in the future.
MT: Florida not getting in. How disappointing was that?
AH: Yeah we knew they had a young team. It was disappointing. I felt like they were going to make it. I was one of the ones saying it all year. They’ll come back next year even hungrier and try to get into the tournament.
MT: I recently talked to Joakim. You know how passionate he is more than I being you won and lost with him. He seems to be going through it a little in terms of losing especially with the high expectations they had in Chicago. Do you talk a lot?
AH: Yeah we talk some. We played recently. They beat us over there but we had a battle. They came down to Atlanta and we beat them there. It sucks with the amount of losing because Jo wants to win real bad so I feel you. He hates it. Obviously they are trying to make a push and win some games but we used to win so much at school so it’s different now.
MT: What’s it like on the court when you go up against each other after such a great run at Florida? What was that initial time like meeting on the court as competitors.
AH: It was different. He knows most of my moves and I know a lot of his moves. We played well together and all of that. It’s weird having to guard him. It was highly unlikely that we were going to play with each other so we gotta go at it.
MT: Everyone knows you have the ability to become a superstar. What’s the challenge to make it happen.
Josh Smith: I have to focus in. I can’t let anything distract me. I have to play my game with confidence.
MT: You have a lot of ball skills. Is there something to becoming just a better basketball player instead of a certain on court player position?
JS: Working on my skills all year round. You can never be satisfied with the growth of your game, your personal success or things your accomplish as a team. You have to stay hungry. I’m one of those guys who is hungry. I work on my all round game every time out.
MT: Are you satisfied with your personal progress?
JS: I am satisfied. A lot of guys in my position are not doing the things that I’m doing. I’m playing with a lot of freedom. I play hard every night and it’s showing out there on the court.
MT: Who was that dude growing up?
JS: Aw man Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the whole Bulls team. I loved watching those guys. I always wore 23 but grew out of it.
MT: Your coach doesn’t get a lot of credit for the job he’s done this year. What does he mean to you? You seem to be growing game by game with your coach.
JS: He doesn’t get a lot of credit. We have grown together. He’s been a coach since I’ve been here. It’s kind of new for him at a head position, but he’s come along good. He’s coached under Larry Brown who was very successful in this league so it’s only a matter of time when he gets the total feel of a head coach.
MT: How satisfied was it to get a win after losing to the Sixers the first night of the home and home?
JS: It was very satisfying. It’s just a relief. We are playing with a lot of urgency. We know the task at hand. We let ourselves down with a loss the other night but we got it right back.
MT: Mike what’s it like getting over here from Sac and how are you fitting in?
Mike Bibby: The transition has been good. Guys brought me in pretty well. We are just trying to fit in and make things go smoothly for everybody else. I think it’s a good fit for me though. It’s a real good fit.
MT: I’d hoped to get some Carolina stuff from you but what is going on?
Marvin Williams: (Laughs) We down by what?
MT: Man it’s 44-27.
MW: It’s early, but Kansas ain’t no joke. I ain’t taking nothing away from them. I was telling my teammates they were the one team that really made me nervous out of the Final Four. They have so many options that play so well.
MT: What did you learn the most from Carolina?
MW: Coach Williams taught me so much. The biggest thing I took from him is he really taught me how to work hard and never slack off and I’ll start to succeed in this league. We all go back there to work every summer and work together. It’s really helped our game.
MT: So much has been said about all the NBA veterans and alumni going back and helping the current class get better. How true is that?
MW: Very very true.
MT: Give me a few names.
MW: Guys like Stack (Jerry Stackhouse), Vince (Carter). Antawn (Jamison) was down there, Brendan Haywood, Shammond Williams. I spent a ton of time with Shammond. Ed Cota might come in, Rasheed. Anybody that played at Carolina will come in there at some point in time. It’s great to have all those guys in there playing.
MT: What are you learning most from Mike Woodson?
MW: To be mentally tough. That’s all he’s really taught me and I’m really really glad because we have so many young guys. We’ve all learned together because even he’s young in the game.
MT: Your jumper seems to be falling consistently. Talk about your skill development. You were drafted very early and came into the league highly touted and seem to be coming into your own.
MW: I think we all have improved man. I think the biggest thing for me coming into the league was that I was so young. I’m still extremely young even though it’s my third year. It wasn’t no surprise with me. I knew I had a lot of learning to do. Each year I’ve gone back and tried to add something to my game. I feel like I’m trying to show that right now. The team is trying to show that right now.
MT: What do you think you need to work on the most?
MW: Aw man…you can always get better in every area. I really want to focus on my ball handling so I can break guys down a little more off the dribble and can always get better defensively. I also want to get my body in shape to bang with bigger guys.
MT: What type of player do you aspire to be?
MW: The best I can be. That’s all you can ever do. At the end of the day you have to sit down, look in the mirror and say did I give it my all? If you did, then that’s a great career and you will have a great time.
MT: When you were at MSU, what was the climate coming in after Magic?
Steve Smith: Coming in after Magic was a tough task. The one thing about Michigan State, because what Magic has done, he drew a lot of kids like myself to Michigan State. Especially the position I was trying to play and being a 6’8″ guard at Michigan State. He set a precedent for the state of Michigan by winning championships in high school and college. Then he goes off and wins a NBA championship in his rookie year. So he was the guy everybody loved growing up. I can speak for Derrick Coleman, Jalen Rose..Chris Webber. We all tried to be like Magic.
MT: The combo guard attribute…was that a direct influence from Magic or something you developed personally.
SS: I was definitely a fan of his and George Gervin. They used to call me Earvin Gervin when I was in high school.
MT: Wow! The Ice Man…
SS: Yes. Magic was the man who rearranged the guard position.
MT: Who are some of your favorite players now and competitors when you were in the league and before then?
SS: I always had my allegiance to guys from Michigan. So Magic and Gervin. After that some of the guys I liked playing against were Joe Dumars and Isiah. My favorite player right now is Chris Paul. He puts on a show the way he plays. Of course Kobe as well. The way they control the tempo of the game. There’s also Baron Davis–I played with him. He can take over with his skill level and IQ for the game.
MT: What best describes your time in the league? What’s your basketball legacy?
SS: I don’t know what my legacy would be, but I can best describe my time as a kid laying in bed dreaming to do something and the dream coming true. It can’t get any better than that in life.
MT: What’s it like being behind the mic? You ever want to get up and throw on a uniform?
SS: Oh yeah. The one thing about me is I’m always going to play basketball. I still practice with the team. I play in summer leagues. I’m still winning in summer leagues around Atlanta. I recruit real well though.
MT: Who has that shot on the Hawks to become a star?
SS: Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson have been there. Josh Smith is up and coming and Al Horford. Those two guys have the biggest chance.
MT: Who was your broadcasting mentor?
SS: I love listening to Doc Rivers, Hubie Brown and Doug Collins. They understand the game and teach you while you are watching the game. There’s a lot of people before, but I like the way they teach it.