Joakim Noah was never supposed to be this kind of player.
The ninth overall pick of the 2007 draft, the former Florida Gator entered the NBA after leading his alma mater to the school's first two NCAA basketball championships.
Despite his success, though, his draft selection garnered talks of bust before he ever suited up in a Bulls uniform.
Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey greeted the newest Bull with a sweeping criticism wrapped up in a column dubbed "You Must Be Joakim." Morrissey called Noah "half TV creation and half marshmallow soft." The columnist said his perception of Noah was "based on the reality that he's just not that good."
Noah did little to silence his critics during his first two NBA seasons, never topping 6.7 points per game or 7.6 rebounds per game. Maybe it was his lofty collegiate accomplishments or his successful family tree (father, Yannick, won tennis' French Open in 1983), but the bar appeared much higher than typically set for a ninth pick in his second professional season.
But the Bulls chose to focus on Noah's steady improvements (he upped his field-goal percentage from 48.2 to 55.6 in his sophomore campaign, then set career highs in his third season with 10.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game), rewarding him with a five-year, $60 million contract prior to the 2010-11 season.
With an increased role (due to contract status if nothing else) came added pressure to live up to his new deal. But ligament damage in his hand forced and other ailments cost Noah 34 games of the 2010-11 season.
Noah's struggles boiled over near the end of that season. After battling through yet another injury (this time with his right ankle), the big man sank onto coach Tom Thibodeau's bench.
Following a disappointing four-point, four-rebound effort in April 2011, Thibodeau told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that Noah simply had "to do better."
Noah's contract extension kicked in during the 2011-12 season. That season would prove to be his worst since his second year in the league.
Truth be told, his newfound fortune may have been weighing heavily on his shoulders. Noah later told Johnson that "sometimes you feel like because you're given so much money you're expected to do things."
Noah struggling was one thing. But it carried much greater weight with former MVP Derrick Rose battling his way through the season.
Still, the Bulls persevered thanks to timely contributions from Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and the second unit. By the time the postseason rolled around, the Bulls had a healthy Rose and a tie (with San Antonio) for the league's best record (50-16).
But during Chicago's first game of the postseason, Rose landed awkwardly during the final minutes of the game.
The diagnosis was a torn ACL in his left knee, ending his own season that night and Chicago's just five games later.
With Rose expected to miss a majority of the 2012-13 season, Chicago's goal was simple: tread water until their star point guard returned. As long as they could stay within reach of the postseason, then a healthy Rose would spur a late-season playoff charge.
But Noah had other plans. He didn't want to just keep the playoff race in sight, he wanted to plant his Bulls team in the thick of it.
He's outperforming all expectations, in historic fashion no less:
Elias Says Joakim Noah is the 2nd player to record 30 points, 23 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 1 game es.pn/TJ5ude— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 8, 2012
But he's not saving his production for a big game here or there. In fact, his interior presence has afforded Thibodeau a rare luxury at the center position:
Joakim Noah is on pace to play 50 games of 40+ minutes, most for a center in the NBA since Hakeem (53) in 1993-94. #INDvsCHI— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) December 4, 2012
Those minutes may not sound sustainable, but Noah says there is a reason he's been able to maintain his effectiveness despite the heavy work load. He credited the offseason training additions of yoga (suggested by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and underwater exercises under the direction of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton (according to Mike McGraw of the Chicago Daily Herald).
Noah's still not a consistent go-to scorer, but he's embraced the role of facilitator as Thibodeau continues his attempts to solve Chicago's point-guard puzzles. With noted scorer Nate Robinson earning a bulk of what would be Rose's minutes, Noah has kept things flowing on the offensive end:
Joakim Noah has recorded his 7th game of 5+ assists this season, only Marc Gasol has more (8) among centers.— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) December 6, 2012
Clearly, this Chicago team is missing their All-Star leader (Rose). But it just so happens that they've added another in his absence.