From the unkempt curls and scraggly stubble to the corkscrew spin of his jump shot—if you can even call it that—there isn’t much in Joakim Noah’s game that screams basketball beauty.
Until, that is, the beholder’s eye starts peering a little closer.
To the box score, sure, where you’re liable to find lines like Saturday’s: 23 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and five blocks in the Chicago Bulls’ 94-87 win over the Sacramento Kings.
Or to the season stat sheet, where Noah is registering career-high averages in points, rebounds and assists (12.4, 11.3 and 5.0, respectively).
Or to this, from Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders:
Joakim Noah is a monster. He had 23 points, 11 boards, 8 assists, 5 blocks, 3 steals in win. He's in the mix for DPOY and All-NBA First Team— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) March 16, 2014
More specifically, you’ll want to fix your gaze on the plays before the plays—the subtle nuances of a soldier for whom the minutiae are just as crucial as the munitions.
Watch the pinpoint pass threaded through limbs, the perfectly placed hip to root out a rebound, the ready rotation in another shot-clock violation.
In a sport where smarts are often the last refuge of atrophied talent, Noah has made being cerebral his chief calling card at a position where such faculties flower in few—far between at that.
Coupled with the kind of caustic fire long the lot solely of hotheads, there emerges a template for the athletically middling player with passion to spare.
Indeed, the numbers only bear out Noah’s increasingly significant role.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), of all the Bulls who have logged more than 50 minutes, Noah leads the team in on-court assist ratio at 18.8—that is, the number of plays per 100 possessions a team registers an assist with a specific player on the floor.
With Noah on the bench, Chicago’s assist ratio drops to 15.7, its lowest mark irrespective of minutes played.
The higher the view, the more Noah’s impact holds: Of the six lineups that have seen the floor 100 minutes or more and are registering a positive net rating, Noah is featured in—you guessed it—all of them.
Whatever you do, however, do not serenade him with chants of “M-V-P!” Chicago’s crowd tried this already, during a recent win over the Miami Heat. Noah’s response, per Chuck Swirsky of Bulls.com, was one of awkward reticence. Why, Swirsky asked?
“Because our MVP is not playing,” Noah responded. “We have one MVP, and that’s Derrick Rose. And it’s not about MVPs; it’s about rings, and one day I hope that we can get one here.”
Even more incredible than Noah’s five-tool production and diplomatic deference, however, is how convincingly he’s managed to defy the narratives laid before him.
In February, BlogaBull’s Ricky O’Donnell recounted Noah’s evolution from high-energy polarizer to full-fledged basketball impresario:
First, Joakim Noah was a pest. When Florida unexpectedly made a national championship run in 2006 behind three future NBA lottery picks, Noah was the Gators’ most visible player for reasons that went beyond the court. He taunted and he danced and he never stopped coming at you -- the combination of his histrionics, motor and unwieldy appearance made him one of the most reviled college basketball players of the last decade, right up there with Tyler Hansbrough and J.J. Redick.
The histrionics are still front and center, mind you, albeit on a more accepting stage. The beefs and extracurricular bumps? Both persist, though the psychology has only grown sounder.
But it’s Noah’s growth as a basketball player—as a contributor to a particular style and system—that challenges our very notion of what, exactly, makes an NBA star.
Absent are the highlight-reel dunks and ceaseless scoring sprees, the impossible up-and-under layups and Olympic-volleyball blocks. That poster of Noah: The pose is never airborne.
Rather, what Noah gives us is a gradual genius, intangibles improved in increments. We’re so accustomed to NBA superstars “making the leap” that improving bit by bit, play by play, happens too slowly for us to notice and thus probably isn’t happening.
It’s unlikely that an offense so dependent on hard-fought precision as Noah’s Bulls will get all the stops and buckets it needs to crash the Eastern Conference Finals—or a team as singularly dependent on its defense, for that matter.
Once again, the loss of Derrick Rose has forced Chicago—despite Tom Thibodeau’s best efforts to the contrary—to treat the season as a dream deferred. Should Rose return to form, giving Chicago the 1-A offensive option it so desperately needs, the Bulls could make quick work of making up for lost time.
Far less certain is to whose team Rose will be returning.
That probably plays into another noxious NBA narrative: that of specific players “owning” a team, of a team taking on one player’s personality above all others, as if this were a league of fiefdoms.
In the end, whether we see the Bulls as “Derrick Rose’s team” or “Joakim Noah’s team,” it doesn’t matter, notwithstanding Noah's statements on the subject. It might not really matter to them, and it certainly won’t matter to whichever team finds itself opposite them in any future fray.
Because when Noah weaves that high-post pass through your legs and hits a streaking Rose in stride, whose team you’re playing will pale compared to knowing you want nothing to do with it.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 16, unless otherwise noted.