After hearing that Greg Oden was out for the season, I, like so many, had mentally handed the Rookie of the Year award to Kevin Durant. He has the name recognition, the magazine covers, the TV commercials and he's a pretty good player. At least, he's going to be. Right now the kid is struggling on a team that's struggling. Durant may be comfortably leading rookies in scoring (19.4 compared to No. 2 Juan Navarro's 10.7) but he's also taking nearly twice as many shots a game as the No. 2 guy (17.2 compared to Al Thornton's 9.3) and barely shooting 40 percent to get there.
Every night Durant's being asked to carry a heavy load and some nights the rail-thin 19-year-old just doesn't have the strength, thus Seattle's 13-38 record. Again, he's going to be a pretty good player some day soon, but the Atlanta Hawks have a rookie who is a pretty good player now -- Al Horford. Remember him? The muscle behind the Florida Gators' back-to-back championships and the foundation on which the Hawks' tentative playoff hopes now stand upon. (They're percentage points out of the final spot in the Eastern Conference.) Joe Johnson's the All-Star and Josh Smith will be, but Horford's presence on the blocks is the reason why this team may end its decade-long playoff drought.
He's a Rookie of the Year in the mold that Buck Williams was Rookie of the Year in 1982 -- he's doing the dirty, grown-man work that wins games. It ain't pretty but then, this ain't no beauty contest. In Tuesday night's loss to the Pistons, Horford fought Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess all night, outworking them for several key offensive rebounds and helping to hold Detroit to one shot on the other end. And he didn't just score on putbacks; the Hawks fed the young fella in the post against that frontline and he made a lot of good decisions with the ball -- scoring when he had it and kicking it out when he didn't, finishing the night with 12 points and 16 boards. And showing the kind of smarts I don't always see from the trigger-happy Durant.
At first I thought it was just a case of a lesser player having a good night while the D concentrated on the team's stars, but that's not it. Game in and game out, the Hawks depend on Horford's 9.3 ppg and 10 rpg the way they depend on JJ and Smith. They don't beat Kobe and Pau the other night without Big Al's 15 and 20. Atlanta doesn't need 20 a night from Horford, but they need his toughness in the middle. The team is currently allowing fewer points than it has the past seven seasons and he's a big reason why. Pun intended. Those 21 wins may not seem like a lot but remember the Hawks won just 30 games last season.
Now, when it's all said and done, Durant will be the better player. But the ROY award should not be about potential. Or popularity. It should be about today's results. And today Seattle's not winning with Durant and the Hawks are competitive thanks to Horford.