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Throwback Thursday: Jeff Hornacek the player, one of basketball's greatest ever shooters

As a player, current Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek rose from a mutt of a late second round pick in the 1986 NBA Draft to become one of the most accurate shooters of his era in the NBA, and an all-around great player.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

As we slog through the dog days of the NBA offseason, enjoy some classic Suns memories in our latest series of Throwback Thursday pieces.

For a player who was a walk-on at a decidedly non-power Iowa State basketball program, then an unheralded, low second round NBA draft pick at #46 by the Suns, it's difficult to find a more unlikely candidate as one of the top 50 NBA players in a slew of shooting and offensive efficiency categories, but here is Jeff Hornacek. His NBA career is a lesson in smarts and over-achievement. The players he coaches today can take note.

When the Suns drafted Hornacek in 1986, they were a team reaching the end of the successful John MacLeod era, and Horny was hardly seen as a prospect to be excited about. He did nothing to distinguish himself in his first couple of seasons as a bit player on bad teams, not able to crack 30% shooting from 3 or 10 PPG.

Behind the scenes, he was working hard to remake his shooting stroke, and that work would pay off once the next Suns era began with the hiring of head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. In Horny's next four seasons before his exit from Phoenix in the Charles Barkley trade, he showed steady improvement, peaking with a 1991-92 season in which he averaged 20.1 PPG on 44% 3-point and 51% overall shooting. He built himself into an All-Star.

Much is rightfully made of Steve Nash's 50-40-90 seasons, with 50% overall FG shooting, 40% 3s and 90% FTs. Horny never did that for a season, but nearly did so over his entire NBA career. For his career: 49.6% overall shooting, 40.3% from 3 and 87.7% from the line. This was good for 15th all-time in FT%, 26th all-time in 3-point%, 19th all-time in O-Rating, and 45th all-time in true shooting %.

And it's not as if Horny was simply a spot up shooting specialist. By his fourth NBA season, he was such an effective all-around player that he put up 18.6 points, 4.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game in a 1990 Suns playoff run which saw them take down the Lakers and make the conference finals.

In the WCF, Horny did all he could in the deciding game 6. He scored 36 points as KJ played only 14 minutes due to injury in a disappointing loss. Look at his well-rounded game here as he hits mid-range jumpers and drives to the hoop, the Suns' most valuable player in a game with the highest of stakes. (Yes, that is oracle of basketball knowledge Hubie Brown with the commentary 25 years ago.)

It's a cliche to talk about the unheralded, unathletic, undersized (6'3", 190 lbs) underdog who enjoys success due to smarts, toughness and a fundamentally airtight game, but that's exactly what Hornacek was. In hindsight, his game always had the look of a future coach: In the right spot, making the right decision, outplaying more "talented" players by outwitting them.

Another important takeaway, and essential to understanding what Hornacek is doing as head coach of the current Suns is that I don't think he saw himself as a "shooting guard." He spent his career playing next to star point guards Kevin Johnson and John Stockton, but was always ready and able to take the point himself, averaging 4.9 assists per game.

The current Suns stockpiling of PGs has drawn lots of criticism, but what they're actually doing is finding guards who are capable of playing both on and off the ball, as Horny was. No "shooting guard" or "point guard", just "guards." Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker all profile this way. Even Archie Goodwin, who looks like a classic SG, is a player the Suns are trying to develop as a combo guard.

Despite the struggles of last season, head coach Hornacek has led the Suns to overall over-achievement in his first two seasons. Remember what a mess the roster was to start the 2013-14 season, coming off a 25 win debacle and forecast to be even worse. Then they stayed in playoff contention late into each of the last two seasons in a loaded Western Conference.

Success as a player doesn't always equal success as a coach, but an overachieving player such as Hornacek fits the profile of a winning future head coach. He's demonstrated this so far in his early coaching career, though of course he has much left to prove with his current team.

Of all the problems the Suns have, head coach isn't one of them. I expect Hornacek to make the same steady, workmanlike improvement in this craft as he did in his former one.

All stats quoted are from

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