Al Horford, shown in 2018 during his first stint with the Celtics, is back with the team this season and is doing what he can to work his way into the starting lineup. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Celtics still wanted Al Horford back in the summer of 2019, but they weren’t willing to bet that he would still be a $26 million player at age 35 when they didn’t match a hefty four-year offer from the Philadelphia 76ers.

That bet by Danny Ainge was the right one at the time, but the team brought back Horford on his pricy contract two years later in order to counteract some of the damage done that same offseason with a disappointing signing of Kemba Walker and his knees.

Horford is making $8 million dollars less than Walker this season and the team believes Horford is a better fit on this roster alongside Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, according to league sources.

Just how long Horford remains in Boston is yet to be seen (his salary next season is only partially guaranteed), but the big man is quickly establishing himself as a key piece for the team once again despite being the oldest player on the roster. Fresh off a six-month rest in Oklahoma City, Horford is looking rejuvenated, according to his new head coach.

“He does (look fresh),” Ime Udoka said after practice on Thursday. “It’s noticeable. Whether he found the fountain of youth or it’s just the time off that he got not playing all the games last year in Oklahoma City. I mentioned having him in Philadelphia where he sat out some games here and there, but for the most part, he’s come back in shape.

“He’s looked great since the day he came into training camp and talked about how he took care of his body and how much of an opportunity this is. And he’s happy to be back. So you can see with his body and how he’s playing, he looks lively, fresh, and looks rejuvenated. We’re loving what we’re seeing from him.”

Horford only played 28 games last season for Oklahoma City before the team elected to go with younger talent and have Horford sit out in the second half of the regular season. As a result, the veteran got his longest rest since 2011 during his pro career, something that allowed him to fully recovery from the grind of the NBA bubble season in 2020.

“I think for me it all started being in Oklahoma City with their training staff over there, their group, working with them,” Horford explained. “And then transitioning to the summer, I had a lot of time over the summer to really (work). Usually when you’re finished with the playoffs, you’re so tired, you’re depleted, you’ve gotta do some things to kind of get back to where you need to. And this summer I was healthy, I was able to get after it in the weight room, conditioning, start building it on the court like I wanted to. So going into this year, I feel really good. I feel as good as I’ve felt probably in my NBA career, to be honest. So I’m just pretty excited to feel this way and have an opportunity to be here.”

Just how much opportunity is awaiting Horford in Boston remains to be seen in the team’s crowded front court. Robert Williams took over the starting center position midway through last season, and the team invested in him with a four-year extension in September. However, Horford is a strong candidate to start at power forward because of his 3-point shooting (35 percent) that could provide enough spacing around Williams and the team’s stars.

“We want to look at everything, honestly,” Udoka said of the starting lineup options. “We feel versatility is an asset for us, with the lineups we can start, but a guy like Al is making a huge case, obviously, the way he’s come in and looked and played, the leadership and things he’s brought. I mentioned some of the versatility with what he can do as far as pass the ball, handle it and shoot it, so he’s an asset there, but it’s also finding the right balance for our bench, as well.”

Udoka will have several other options to start small (with Josh Richardson, Aaron Nesmith or Dennis Schroder), but a traditional big look could also take some onus off Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum with their defensive assignments. No matter what route Udoka chooses, Horford is eager to play whatever role he is asked and show he’s worth most of the big deal that he signed for in 2019 when getting back to his healthy stuff.

“We’re going to have a lot of options as a team, a lot of things we can do as a group, very versatile, so that’s something Ime is excited about, I’m excited about, kind of keeps us unpredictable and that’s a good thing.”

THE TEAM HAS shown faith in Robert Williams, giving the 23-year-old center a four-year extension in August that could pay him up to $54 million through the 2025-26 season.

That’s life-changing money for a player who was the No. 28 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and had made just $5.6 million in total salary over his first three NBA seasons. However, when asked what his first order of business was after signing the deal, it wasn’t buying something for himself.

“I just closed on my mom’s house,” Williams told MassLive. “That was my biggest priority, getting her a house.”

The decision did not surprise members of the Celtics organization upon hearing it.

“What is different about Rob is he’s as genuine a human as you will find in the NBA,” said Celtics vice president of basketball operations Mike Zarren.

Most players probably feel a sense of relief to sign a big rookie extension to guarantee themselves some security for themselves and their families over the long term. However, Williams took a unique perspective on what signing the deal means for him.

“It’s just motivation,” he said. “I’m grateful for my deal, thankful for my deal always and everyone who helped me get here. There’s always more in life so I use it as motivation and fuel, letting me know the organization believes in me.”

FREE THROWS: The Celtics have had a common theme at the end of practice, when they’re tired and nearly finished: Practicing free throws. That has manifested either when sprints are on the line or the entire team is putting up shots from the charity stripe.

“More of a habit in general,” Udoka said of the free throws. “It’s nothing personal with our team, just a chance to get some reps up at the end of practice when you’re tired, get a little focused there. Obviously, you know the importance of free throws.”


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