NEW YORK -- For decades, the Dominican Republic has been known for supplying a pipeline of talent to the baseball diamond in the big leagues. Now, it is producing prospects on the hardwood as well.
"Because of my dad, I started playing the game," Horford said before a recent game at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. "Seeing him motivated me to play. He's been an important part of my life."
After leading the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007, the 6-foot-10 center from Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, had his visions become a reality, becoming the third overall pick in the first round of the 2007 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks, then perennial cellar dwellers.
But in his rookie season, Horford led the Hawks to their first playoff berth since the 1998-99 season. Against the would-be champion Boston Celtics, the eighth-seeded Hawks gave the C's all they could handle, pushing the first-round series to seven games before ultimately being sent packing.
"He was pretty good coming in," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "He won back-to-back titles in Florida but he's grown. The guy plays hard every night. He's a true pro on and off the floor. I'm glad he's in a Hawks uniform."
Woodson said that Horford can be a "double-double guy in this league for a long, long time." And after nearly averaging a double-double in his first two seasons, he may finally do it in his third; Horford is currently averaging 13.5 points and 10.5 rebounds through eight games.
"[I'm] trying to be aggressive, but in reality, I know what I have to do in the team, which is to defend, rebound and block shots," the Dominican center said. "On offense when I
get the ball what I have to do is be more aggressive this year."
This summer, Horford joined Francisco Garcia of the Kings and the Pistons' Charlie Villanueva on the Dominican team at the FIBA Americas Championship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although heavily favored to win and automatically qualify for the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey, Horford and the Dominican squad were knocked out in the second round. Only an invitation from FIBA would guarantee that the Dominican Republic joins the tournament.
"Well that depends," Horford said of possibly playing for the Dominican Republic national team if invited. "I know that is a very big obligation and takes a lot of time. Provided that my team doesn't have a problem with me playing, I would go and play."
As the NBA continues the globalization of the game of basketball abroad, the young Hawks center is one of 19 Hispanic players from Spain and Latin America, in addition to All-Stars like Gilbert Arenas (Cuba) and Carmelo Anthony (Puerto Rico), who also have Latino roots. The league has recognized the Hispanic presence by launching a new marketing initiative "Éne-bé-a", the Spanish pronunciation of "NBA."
"It's growing, you know," Horford said. "Normally you always talk about Argentinean players [like] Manu Ginobili, who are people that are veterans in the league and are representing the league in the correct manner. But I think more players like Francisco [Garcia], me and a new group of players that are after [them are] making a difference in the league."
There are 86 players in the NBA from 36 countries, a positive sign for the international game, according to Horford.
"I think the international players, in general, show how basketball is global now," he said. "There are players from all the countries. Basketball in Latin America is growing a lot and it's being seen with the quantity of players in the NBA."
Woodson saw Horford's opportunity to play for the Dominican Republic as a way to keep his young star in "shape," but it should also help prepare him for what figures to be one of the Hawks' most important seasons of the past decade. After years of poor play, the Hawks have big expectations for 2009-10. In addition to a core that features marquee players such as Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby, Atlanta also added Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith to lend a hand.
"I think with Jamal Crawford, his offense is great help for our bench and he's a player that's very important for our team," Horford said. "Joe Smith is a player with 15 years in the league and he has a lot of experience and he helps us defensively, which is important -- blocking shots, defending the ball and also with his midrange jumper."
As the Hawks seek to become a dominant team in the Eastern Conference, those two key additions will come into play this Friday night when Atlanta meets Boston for the first time this season after dropping all four games to the Celtics last season.
"Every time we play Boston it's a tough battle," Horford said. "It all started two years ago in Boston."