Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011
By Aggrey Sam
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.