For Celtics rookie Robert Williams, Al Horford has had a silent impact for years
Ron Meikle was an NBA scout for 24 years before his last pro job, with the Atlanta Hawks, ended following the 2012-13 season. That summer, Meikle was driving from his Georgia home to California when he stopped in Louisiana to see an old friend.
Larry Bagley, who was then the president of the state’s high school basketball association and is now a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, knew that Meikle was just a few months removed from his NBA life, but he could also tell that he already missed it.
So Bagley told Meikle that the boys basketball team at North Caddo High School in Vivian, La., needed a coach. At the time, the school with an enrollment of less than 400 students was most known for being the alma mater of two stars from the A&E show “Duck Dynasty.” But Bagley told Meikle about a current student who could make a name for himself, too.
“He said, ‘Look, there’s a player down here at this high school that’s only a sophomore,’ ” Meikle recalled. “ ‘He’s 15 years old, but he’s going to be really good. You might want to interview for the job.’ ”
Within a few days, Meikle had been hired to coach the Rebels and their rising star, Robert Williams.
Meikle had no idea then that the top prospect he’d helped the Hawks draft, Al Horford, would one day team up with Williams on the Celtics. But Meikle turned out to be the first link between the two players, and that was quite important for Williams then.
Meikle’s NBA acumen commanded instant respect when he arrived at the small high school in Louisiana. During his long career as a scout, he worked for the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Hawks. He would tell Williams, who clearly had NBA tools even then, about a world the high schooler had seen only on television.
“I always find it weird how Coach Meikle ended up down there in that small place,” said Williams, who was the 27th overall pick in June’s draft. “But everything happens for a reason. I’m glad he was placed there.”
Sometimes Meikle talked about one of his top Warriors prospects, Antawn Jamison, who used to stay after practice almost every day to work on weaknesses. But most often the conversation drifted back to Horford.
In 2007, Meikle said, the Hawks brass was torn between using the third overall pick of the draft on Horford or intriguing Chinese prospect Yi Jianlian. Meikle was in the camp that pushed hard for Horford, and then-general manager Billy Knight ultimately agreed.
“And thank God,” Meikle said. “Thank God. I’ll never forget that, when Billy took Al. He was the piece that we needed. What stood out was leadership, just like now. You’ve got to have a guy like that. He’s a rock. He’s a foundation piece.”
By the time Williams got to North Caddo High, Horford was already a two-time NBA All-Star. And as Meikle worked to mold Williams, who was all arms and legs and potential, he frequently used Horford as an example of what Williams should strive to become.
“Coach Ron always talked about Al not being the fastest, but definitely one of the most efficient,” Williams said. “Every move was on point. He pays attention to detail, defense to offense. He does everything at the right time.”
Sometimes Williams would become frustrated with his inability to quickly grasp certain schemes and concepts and skills.
“And I’d say, ‘Robert, Al Horford didn’t learn it all in one day,’ ” Meikle said. “He had to work at it. He had to practice. He had to do individual work and then eventually he would gain that confidence that would allow him to do it in a game. I wanted him to understand that Al brought it every day, every practice.”
Horford is 32 years old now, the oldest current Celtic. Last season, he was named an All-Star for the fifth time, and this year he will once again be one of Boston’s steady leaders.
Williams is just 20. He has seemingly unlimited athleticism and possibility seems to surround him, but he has already scrambled through some rookie mistakes, like when he missed a flight to Boston and missed his first summer league practice.
On his first day in town, about a week after being drafted, Williams met Horford, who was working out at the Celtics’ sparkling new training facility in Brighton. Horford spoke to Williams about the importance of paying attention to detail. He made it clear he was eager to guide him.
The next day, Williams arrived at the training facility for a physical around 8 a.m., and Horford was already there lifting weights.
“Al has a routine, and I feel like he doesn’t give up on it, even in the offseason,” Williams said. “He has this constant pattern he lives by, and obviously it’s made him successful in the NBA so it’s a great opportunity to follow him.”
Meikle said that Williams would do well to follow Horford’s example, just as he started to do in high school. He said Williams could figure out how Horford added a long-range shot to his arsenal, and that Horford could help the rookie unlock some of his passing skills that are hidden just beneath the surface.
But most of all, Meikle said, it will be beneficial for Williams to just be in Horford’s presence.
“I think the most important thing about Al is his mentorship,” Meikle said. “He’s such a solid individual that he’ll be there to help Robert through the rookie mistakes that people make.
“Shoot, you already saw he’s made a couple. But he’ll get the fans back on his side when they see him play.”