It hasn't come quickly, but three of the most prominent alumni of Florida's back-to-back NCAA championship teams --
Considered undersized by some to handle the center position in the NBA, Horford has helped the Hawks fly to the top of the NBA standings this season by anchoring a front line averaging a league-best 51.4 points in the paint and 17.3 second-chance points per game through Monday (the next-best team has 15.8). The sudden maturation of
In Chicago, Noah, perhaps the poster child for Florida's mini-dynasty, shook off a few seasons of immaturity and lackluster play in last season's thrilling Bulls-Celtics playoff series. This season the 6-foot-11 center belongs in the early conversation for the NBA's Most Improved Player award for leading the league in rebounding with 11.9 per game. He also has helped mold Chicago into a rugged, blue-collar unit that was just a game under .500 despite a brutal early schedule and an equally brutal offense that ranks 27th in scoring and 26th in shooting accuracy. With Noah's active defense, though, Chicago ranks 12th in points allowed, 13th in defensive efficiency and ninth in second-chance points.
Noah still has his flaws. The centrifugal spin he puts on his shot makes any conversion a bit of a surprise, and plus/minus figures throughout his career demonstrate he functions best while sharing the floor with high-percentage shooters who compel a double team. But the growing pains that brought about a suspension for mouthing off to an assistant coach and chronic tardiness of his rookie year are a distant memory. It's only a 13-game sample, of course, but thus far Noah has improved in almost every significant category -- minutes, field-goal shooting, rebounds, assists, blocks and points -- for the third straight year.
Then there is Brewer, who qualifies as the most pleasant surprise in a year of unremitting woe for the Timberwolves. With Brewer sidelined with a torn ACL after just 15 games last season following a disappointing rookie year, doubts grew about whether he could be part of an NBA rotation. He has responded by leading the hapless Wolves in minutes while ranking third in scoring and fourth in rebounds and assists. More significant, Brewer has been a disruptive force on defense, not only filling the passing lanes enough to tie for third in the NBA with 2.14 steals, but also using his quickness and 6-9 length on the perimeter to jam up penetration. His shot selection remains as abysmal as his accuracy -- he's second on the Wolves with 171 field-goal attempts yet has converted just 36.8 percent -- and his careening style has been a tragicomic feast for the eyes of Minnesota fans. But his toughness and dedication are why new coach
In retrospect, the decisions by Horford, Noah and Brewer to return to Florida and defend their college title was an extraordinary act of love for the game and for team camaraderie that will probably never be repeated in this era of early departures. But the three players' continued desire to refine and improve their games at the NBA level is of a kindred spirit, infusing their respective teams with the kind of determination that made the three champions in college and emerging standouts in the pros.
• It's time for
• Everybody wants to talk about the emergence of guard
• Yes, the Cavaliers are cruising along at 4-1 with
• Early last season, the Timberwolves fired coach
The magic wore off in a one-point defeat Sunday in Miami, where Paul's leadership was sorely missed. With the Hornets up by two in the final minute, point guard Collison twice unsuccessfully called his own number, missing one shot and getting the other blocked. On the game's final possession, with New Orleans down a point, All-Star power forward
Despite his crunch-time tunnel vision, Collison has shown the potential to command a team in Paul's absence, and at less than 10 percent of Paul's $13.5 million salary this season. Given the state of the economy and the fact that New Orleans is over the luxury-tax threshold despite being among the smallest markets of any of the four major sports in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, you wonder how long it will be before majority owner
• The Spurs are off to another slow start at 6-6, yet pundits are rightfully shy about burying them, considering San Antonio has reloaded its roster and hasn't won fewer than 54 games (except for the lockout year, when they went 37-13) since coach
San Antonio is at .500 despite playing eight of its first 12 at home. The Big Three of
• A tip of the cap to Magic general manager