Bulls

Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah

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Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011
3:19 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

PORTLANDId be lying if I said that when I first watched Joakim Noah play basketball, I thought hed develop into a top-five NBA center for a championship contender. In fact, I wasnt sure Noahthe son of former tennis star and current rock star Yannick Noah; he was also more famous for being a ball boy at the vaunted ABCD Camp for high school All-Americans before he was finally selected to play in the event before his 12th-grade yearcould play college basketball for a major program. I wasnt alone in my opinions.

Not a lot of people believed in Jo when he was playing. Nobody thought hed be a good player, recalled Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney, who recruited Noah when he was an assistant coach at Villanova, his alma mater. When, Id say, Hey, Im going to see Joakim Noah play at LawrencevillePeople would say, That kid? Hes just all right.

In terms of skills, that was a correct assessment. A gangly, uncoordinated high school prospect, Noah was far from a blue-chipper during his prep days. He still played with his trademark energy and enthusiasm, but he wasnt close to a finished product.

When I first observed Noah in AAU competition, I did think he could be a productive college playerat the right level, most likely in the Atlantic-10 Conference or a lower-level Big East program. A summer later, he continued to grow on me and I was sold after seeing him outwork higher-ranked and more skilled players. By this time, he was considered an upper-echelon recruit, though still not a star.

He would have changed our program if he had gone to Villanova because he has all of the characteristics that you want in a big man, Pinckney told CSNChicago.com. The thing that stood out to me about him was communication on the court. He was yelling, screaming, Watch the screen! I got your man!

I had never seen a big guy play with this much energy in a long time, he continued, thinking back to a specific tournament in New Jersey in which Noah participated. You could hear him in the gym all the way in the upstairs portion where I and the other coaches were watching, and there were three games going on all at once. This dude was all over the place.

Noah eventually signed with the University of Florida and while he didnt immediately stand out as a freshmanplaying behind then-senior and fellow future pro David Leethere were signs he was only scratching the surface of his talents.

Florida head coach Billy Donovan allowed him to use his full skill set, noted Pinckney, a long-time NBA veteran and former college national champion. I always felt that because of the position and having played the position, big guys develop late. I knew he was going to be good; I didnt know hed be a first-round pick or lottery guy.

In his freshman year, we played them in the NCAA Tournament and he was only in for a little bit, and probably didnt play as well as he could have, but still was very active and impacted the game, continued Pinckney, whose Villanova team beat Florida that season. The next year when we played them, when we were watching the film the night before, it was frightening. We were saying to each other, How are we going to score?

We couldnt get a shot off. Randy Foye and Allan Ray, all these guys that got drafted and went to the NBAwere talking about guards, who routinely get to the basket, blow past big men and score at the rimthey couldnt even drive past him, let alone finish.

Noah, of course, would go on to lead his Gators squad to the national championship as a sophomore and again as a junior before declaring for the NBA Draft and being selected by the Bulls. His rookie season, however, didnt go so smoothly, as the pro level wasnt as easy for him to conquer as the college game.

I think the jury was out that first year. I think on top of all the struggles he had on the court, he had injuries, too, said Pinckney, who was by then coaching with the Minnesota Timberwolves. His shot became the focus of talk about his game, instead of his shot-blocking and rebounding abilities. Hes overcome all of that to become a pretty good shooter from the perimeter, a very good free-throw shooter and an elite-level offensive rebounder. From the first season to the second season, he made huge strides.

Instead of whispers he was overrated, a malcontent and a potential bust, Noah became a Chicago fan favorite in his second campaign, capped by his pivotal role in the now-legendary Bulls-Celtics epic seven-game first-round playoff series. Last season, he further emerged, becoming one of the leagues premier rebounders, a defensive force, a much-improved offensive player and again, a postseason lightning rod with his controversial commentsnever a shrinking violet, his charisma makes him loved in the Windy City and hated elsewhereabout the city of Cleveland (his early-season dust-up with former Cavaliers superstar LeBron James didnt help matters there).

Heading into the current Bulls season, Noah inked a long-term contract extension with Chicago, extinguishing rumors hed be dealt for the likes of Carmelo Anthony. Having further strengthened his once-spindly frame and polished his outside shot in the offseasonpreviously a weaknessas well as thriving in new Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus system and briefly leading the league in rebounding, the teams emotional leader appeared to be on his way to his first All-Star appearance before being sidelined in December following surgery on his right thumb.

I think he has all the tools to be a great player. I dont think theres any question he will be, just because there arent many bigs that play with that type of intensity. He just plays so hard, its just a matter of time until everything comes together for him, Pinckneylike Noah, a New Yorkergushed. Barring injury, I dont think theres any question. He just plays so hard. That, to me, alone is his greatest skill.

Youre always trying to get guys to play with energy. You dont have to do that with him.

Traveling with the Bulls on the teams current five-game road trip, Noah can be seen before games, working out with Bulls assistant coach Rick Brunson and occasionally veteran reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, pushing himself through grueling drills before retreating to the opposing arenas weight room.

He works to exhaustion. He tries to take his frustration out in his workouts, observed Pinckney. All that energy he has bottled up inside, he lets it all out.

In some ways, he might still believe hes that kid that so many people doubtedincluding yours truly. Im just glad I changed my mind early.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

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USA TODAY

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

Over the past several weeks, the Bulls have been heavily rumored to be selecting Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although the 6-foot-7 Hutchison had a stellar four-year career with the Broncos, and was regarded as a top-100 national prospect coming out of high school, his background is relatively unknown compared to many of his first-round counterparts. Not many recruiting gurus watched Hutchison in-depth in high school. The same could be said about draft analysts watching Hutchison's career unfold at Boise State.

Part of the reason Hutchison has flown under the radar for so long, despite being a first-round talent, is his unique basketball upbringing. Many elite high school players opt to transfer to big-time basketball schools while playing in high-exposure shoe-company leagues during the spring and summer. Instead of the normal path, Hutchison chose to stick with the people that he trusted.

Playing for a small, independent grassroots program in high school known as Team Eastbay, Hutchison started showing special gifts as a sophomore in before blossoming into a top-100 national prospect towards the end of high school. Hutchison's trainer and coach with Team Eastbay, Perry Webster, saw that Chandler had the ability to be a big-time player.

"I walked into the gym and saw this 15-year-old kind of gangly kid. And he just moved different than anybody else. I thought he had a chance to be a pretty good player," Webster said of Hutchison.

As Hutchison developed more of a reputation in the Southern California basketball scene, becoming a starter at Mission Viejo High School his junior season, he started to draw more attention from local and national recruiting analysts — including former ESPN recruiting insider Joel Francisco, Scout.com's Josh Gershon and SoCal recruiting analyst Devin Ugland.

"You saw during his junior year that he was a legitimate Division I prospect. During the spring he started blossoming," Francisco said. "He had the ball skills and the prototypical length and things like that. And he was finishing plays. He had a good IQ for the game. It was a matter of strength and he had to fill out to become a more complete player."

By the end of summer going into his senior season, Hutchison had established himself as a potential Pac-12 recruit, as schools like Oregon and USC started to show heavy interest. But it was mid-major programs like Boise State, Saint Mary's and UC-Irvine who had long been involved in Hutchison's recruitment.

Knowing that Hutchison was a unique wing with a high IQ and passing skills, Webster, a former Division I player at Cal State Fullerton himself, advised that his star player take a close look at the programs that would put him in position to succeed right away.

"Every AAU program in Southern California was trying to get him for their team. Free ride this, free shoes. The kid stayed really loyal to me. I was very hard on him," Webster said. "I demanded a lot of him. I screamed at him, I yelled at him. And he looked me in the eye and took it. I realized, this kid is pretty special because he's not running away from what he is. He knows what his limitations are. That's not something he's afraid to address.

"Not everybody was sold on him. Joel [Francisco] was. Joel was one of the proponents of him. But being that he burst on the scene late, and that he didn't play for the big shoe companies, we kind of came to the decision that we wouldn't be so enamored by the Pac-12. He realized he had ability but he still had a long way to go." 

Hutchison eventually decided to sign his National Letter of Intent with Boise State before his senior season started as assistant coach Jeff Linder acted as his lead recruiter. Even though his collegiate future had been decided, Hutchison continued to evolve into a major prospect during senior year as he flourished at Mission Viejo.

Even with his strong senior season, skepticism remained about Hutchison since he hadn't played with and against many of the major names in Southern California. Ranked as the No. 83 overall prospect in ESPN's final Class of 2014 national recruiting rankings, Hutchison was viewed as the seventh best player in his own state. While Francisco pushed for Hutchison to be ranked in the top 50, he had to settle for him being a back-end top-100 talent.

"They're like, hey, he's going to Boise State, he's not on a major shoe company team. How good can he be? But if he can play, he can play. It doesn't matter if he's not on the adidas circuit, he's not in the EYBL," Francisco said.

Francisco wasn't the only major recruiting analyst to take notice of Hutchison's play. Rivals.com's Eric Bossi also labeled Hutchison as a potential breakout player at Boise State. Hutchison was even placed in the Rivals national recruiting rankings, ending up at No. 98 overall, after his senior season. Bossi was on vacation with his family during spring break and he happened to see Hutchison play during his senior season. But Hutchison's strong effort, along with some research, convinced Bossi that he was worthy of a top-100 ranking, even with only one serious viewing. 

"I decided to go watch some regional California high school playoff stuff. And it just so happened to be that Chandler's high school team was one of the teams I was seeing," Bossi said. "I knew he was on the team and committed to Boise State. But then when I watched him play I was like, 'Holy cow, what an incredible get for Boise State. Like, this dude's legit.' He had great size for a wing. He could handle the ball, he could really pass and I thought he could defend multiple positions at the next level when it was all said and done. I thought he was a versatile, well-skilled, well-rounded basketball player. So, based on that, I thought he was top-100. I wish I had seen him more."

Even as a former top-100 national prospect, it took some time for Hutchison to gain traction at Boise State as he didn't put up big numbers during his first two seasons. Although Hutchison played plenty of minutes and started a healthy amount of games, he often took a back seat to talented all-conference players like Anthony Drmic and James Webb III.

When those players eventually moved on from the Broncos, Hutchison was given his chance to shine, as his ascension into all-conference player and future first-round pick came with an intense work ethic that continually developed during workouts in college.

Hutchison also became a consistent three-point threat — something he had been lacking during his development — as he became a hot name in the 2018 NBA Draft despite his unorthodox basketball background.

"He's always been competitive. I think the big thing is reps. And it still will be as he continues to play in the league," Webster said. "He wasn't a bad shooter in high school, but I think the big adjustment for him getting to college, it's hard to put up good percentages in college. I think some of it is mental. But I think he's a good shooter and I think that he'll prove that." 

It's hard to predict if the Bulls will end up with Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick on Thursday night — especially given all of the chaos that can occur on draft night. But if Hutchison does end up in Chicago, he won't be fazed by having to prove himself after already doing so at the high school and college level.

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