It hasn't come quickly, but three of the most prominent alumni of Florida's back-to-back NCAA championship teams -- Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer -- have reclaimed their legacy with the sort of dogged, selfless, ever-improving performances in the NBA that characterized their college careers.
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 Josh Smith and the potent offense Jamal Crawford has helped provide when joining Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson in a three-guard set beside Smith and Horford certainly have contributed to the Hawks' 11-3 start. But Horford has emerged as the team's most indispensable performer. The Hawks have outscored their opponents by 155 points in the 472 minutes he has played this season, but are minus-62 in the 204 minutes Horford has rested. None of his teammates come close to exerting a similar impact on the club's fortunes.
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 Kurt Rambis mentioned Brewer first when asked recently who has the potential to become a team leader.
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 Gilbert Arenas to look in the mirror and not like what he sees. After blaming the Wizards' 3-9 start on "hidden agendas" on a team with eight impending free agents, Arenas argued, "I converted my game to get people involved. ... I think the only person who actually had to sacrifice was me." This from a guy who has 64 more field-goal attempts than any of his teammates while shooting 39 percent and leading the NBA in turnovers per game (4.0). When Arenas sits, the Wizards are 7.1 points better on offense per 100 possessions and 8.8 points better on defense.
Wizards coach Flip Saunders is renowned for offensive sets that feature crisp passing and open mid-range jumpers, and with the likes of Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller alongside Arenas, the ingredients are there to make the Wizards work. But Arenas is all about three-pointers and drives to the hoop. How wretched is his shot selection? More than a quarter of his non-jumpers (what 82games.com categorizes as "inside" shots) have been blocked.
• Everybody wants to talk about the emergence of guard Will Bynum in Detroit, which certainly is a nice rags-to-riches tale of perseverance. But where would the Pistons be without their former catalyst, Ben Wallace, returning to the team in near-vintage form to provide quality defense in the paint? At 35, with 13 years in the league, Wallace signed for the same $825,497 the Pistons are paying the journeyman Bynum -- dollar for dollar a more valuable acquisition than the expensive, high-profile contracts given Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. With Kwame Brown and Chris Wilcox predictably proving to be busts at center, the 6-9, Not-So Big Ben is averaging 30 minutes and helps Detroit play 6.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he's on the court. And as someone who eschews touches -- he has just 35 field-goal attempts through 14 games, filling the stat sheet instead with 125 rebounds, 18 steals and 19 blocks -- he's the perfect complement to a team brimming with volume shooters like Gordon, Villanueva, Bynum and Rodney Stuckey.
• Yes, the Cavaliers are cruising along at 4-1 with Shaquille O'Neal out with a bum shoulder, after going 6-3 with the Big Aristotle on board. But as one scout told me recently, "It doesn't matter what Shaq does in the regular season. Cleveland got him for the playoffs, to check Dwight Howard and give Howard somebody to guard so he can't roam." OK, but isn't it sobering to consider that the Cavs' fortunes (including whether LeBron James stays) might depend on the team's ability to change its style to get the most out of Shaq during a seven-game series six months from now?
• Early last season, the Timberwolves fired coach Randy Wittman and kicked then-general manager Kevin McHale downstairs to coach the underachieving team he had assembled. McHale rallied the troops enough to become the NBA's Coach of the Month in January. Now New Orleans has fired Byron Scott, bumped GM Jeff Bower to the bench and watched him compile a three-game winning streak -- including huge upsets of Phoenix and Atlanta -- while giving extensive minutes to rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton as superstar Chris Paul recuperates from an ankle injury.
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 David West (who'd been allotted just one shot in the fourth quarter) took the ball and demonstrably shooed all his teammates away -- not a good sign. His runner hit the front iron with 1.9 seconds to play.
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 George Shinn conducts a fire sale. And you wonder why Knicks fans fixate over acquiring LeBron or Dwyane Wade when a trade for Paul -- a far better fit in Mike D'Antoni's system -- in exchange for, say, Larry Hughes' expiring $13 million contract, seems more likely than luring a free-agent superstar to Madison Square Garden.
• 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 Gregg Popovich took over in 1997. It's hard to argue with that run of excellence, and Popovich and Co. have 70 games to right the ship before the playoffs this year, but there is cause for skepticism.
San Antonio is at .500 despite playing eight of its first 12 at home. The Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all have already missed time with injuries. But the biggest worry has to be the long-term wear and tear on Duncan. In losses last week to Dallas and Utah, the Big Fundamental was outplayed down the stretch by his counterparts, Dirk Nowitzki and Carlos Boozer. Whatever the Spurs' ups and downs over the past decade, I can't remember that ever happening before.
• A tip of the cap to Magic general manager Otis Smith for his under-the-radar signing of free agent Jason Williams during the offseason. Williams, who won a championship starting at the point for Miami in 2005-06, didn't play in the NBA last year but has filled in for the injured Jameer Nelson to the tune of 14 assists and six steals (vs. only three turnovers) in three straight victories. Coupled with the deal that brought Vince Carter to Orlando as a replacement for departed free agent Hedo Turkoglu, Smith's moves have paid handsome dividends thus far.