How Joakim Noah Evolved into an Elite NBA Center

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How Joakim Noah Evolved into an Elite NBA Center
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Joakim Noah may end up making first-team All-NBA this year. His arrival at that destination is not as much an event as a journey, though, and—like Noah himself—it’s one best defined by its uniqueness.

His journey goes from being an eccentric collegian, to a rookie who got a suspension extended by his teammates, to being the emotional core of a team that is best known for its resiliency.

It’s one of a player whose aesthetics are hardly what you expect to see in a superstar.

He is the most awkwardly coordinated person you’ll ever see. His arms and knees create angles that are a Pythagorean nightmare. When he gallops up the court, it stirs memories of Bambi on ice, yet somehow, everything that looks so wrong works so well.

His “shot” is easily the worst form in the NBA. He delivers it with both hands at the same time, putting a torque on the ball that is so horrific that it actually ends up working. When your jumper is dubbed the “tornado,” that’s not supposed to be a good thing. But with Noah, it somehow is.

In fact, his shot is so ugly, even Noah poked fun at it after hitting a key jumper in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 9. ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell quotes him,

I'm just happy it went down. Because I know that my jump shot is so ugly that when I knock it down it's demoralizing to the other team. It was a big jump shot for me.

And that hugely energetic, unique, unorthodox, slightly spasmodic game being harnessed and turned into something exceptional and productive is illustrative of Noah’s entire career and personality.

 

The Florida Years

Noah was electric in his sophomore season in Florida, claiming honors for the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Many thought that he would have been chosen first in the draft if he had declared, but he withdrew his name for a second title run, and he succeeded in that endeavor. However, his draft stock fell in the process. 

Noah’s unconventional personality was brought to national attention after he won his second NCAA championship. Somehow, he still had the energy for this crazy display after the game, burning more calories in one bizarre “dance” than most people use all day.

When he did declare, the draft reports on Noah were universal in their praise of his energy. ESPN’s Chad Ford (insider subscription required) said Noah, “Has great length, athleticism and a crazy motor that runs nonstop.” NBA.com’s draft profile said he, “Plays with boundless energy and passion.”

But, the best story comes from Draft Express in relaying what happened during the workout they viewed:

As the workout wore on, we thought that fatigue might kick in, especially since Noah and the Florida boys have been “partying like rock stars” since the championship, in his words. He just got here last week as we were reminded on a few occasions.

Regardless, Noah kept pushing forward harder and harder, finishing first by a large margin in the full-court sprinting drills and refusing to lose in anything competitive that was thrown his way. He just doesn’t run out of energy no matter what it seems. The poor trainer, Andrew, that was assigned to be a “dummy defender” on one particular play got to experience that first hand, taking a swift elbow to the throat as a reward for his efforts.

And that was Noah's brand coming in—a crazy, energetic role player with defensive skills, but little offensive game or potential. No one thought of him as a future MVP candidate. 

 

2007-2009: Borderline Bust?

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In spite of Noah's raw post moves and ugly jumper, the Bulls took him with the No. 9 pick in 2007, and Chicago fans knew immediately what they were in for when Noah struck the infamous Krusty the Clown pose.

To put it mildly, Noah did not have the best rookie season.  

After an argument with assistant coach Ron Adams, Noah had his one-game suspension extended to two by his teammates in a unanimous vote. 

His former coach, Florida’s Billy Donovan, had this to say about it, per Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times, h/t ESPN (original link is broken).

I know what Jo's biggest problem is. 'Jo's biggest problem is that he just wants to win, and when he sees things that are getting in the way with winning he has a tendency to be somewhat demonstrative or loud. I will never believe that his suspension has anything to do with him being selfish. He's pretty smart. He understands the ingredients that can help a team win but there's a certain level of responsibility he's got to take on his part of what he can do to be a professional to try (to) get Chicago to win.

Noah is both deeply emotional and cerebral. Because of that, he took the suspension to heart. In 2010, he told Bryan Smith of Chicagomag what he gained from the experience.

I think my ego was a little bit out of control. Just coming from where I had won, where I was very vocal and a leader. It was humbling. But do I regret it? No. Everything that’s happened to me in my life so far is all a learning experience, good and bad. It’s going to make me a better man in the long run.

Was Noah an overly cocky rookie who needed to be put in his place? Yes.

But, unlike many other rookies who need to be appropriately situated, Noah took the reproach as a lesson to learn from. 

Through the end of his sophomore season, Noah improved, but he was still viewed as a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps “bust” would be too strong a word, but “future MVP candidate” was not something you saw in him.

However, the first true glimpse of what Noah could be became apparent in the 2009 playoffs, during what might be the greatest first-round series in NBA history. The Bulls were pitted against the defending champion, Boston Celtics.

It was Game 6, in triple overtime. The score was tied at 123, and the Celtics had the ball with less than a minute on the clock. Then, this happened:

I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a breakout play, but if there is, that was it. It was a turning point for Noah’s career, when he officially crossed the line from borderline bust to potential star.

 

2009-2012: Energetic Role Player

Beginning in 2009, Noah entered the second phase of his career, that of the “energetic role player.” Through his first two seasons, he averaged 6.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists. During his next three seasons, he averaged 10.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

In the summer of 2009, he came to camp with extra muscle, per Doug Thonus of Chicago Bulls Confidential.

Physically, Noah definitely looks as though he's bulked up some since past seasons though Bulls fans may have been hoping for more than the five to six pounds he said he gained in the interview, but I think it's a legit five to six pounds unlike many of the off-seasons where guys say they add 15 pounds and look basically the same.  I'd wager there's a good chance that his weight gain is about as good as anyone really gets over the summer, but he just didn't exaggerate it like most players do.

Noah put that muscle to good work, adding 4.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in his third season.  

It ended in a playoff run that was known more for his comedic and/or slightly hostile (depending on your perspective) interactions with LeBron James and the city of Cleveland than any real success.

Bulls fans had grown to understand Noah and his genuine ways, though. What might have once been taken as a problem child acting out was received with a round of chuckles and "it's true" instead.

The following season, 2011-12, one of the biggest events of Noah’s life occurred when Tom Thibodeau became the Chicago Bulls head coach.  It was huge for two reasons: Noah and Thibodeau had the same passion for winning, and Noah is the perfect center for Thibodeau’s defensive schemes.

Thibodeau might be one of the few people alive who loves winning as much as Noah does, and Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today quotes Noah's agreement:

Our coach is the hungriest person I've ever been around in my life. Period. I've never met somebody who is as competitive as Tom Thibodeau. He wants to win as bad as anybody I've ever been around.

And, per Zillgitt, Thibodeau has the same respect for Noah, saying, "The biggest thing is he wants to win. Anybody who is serious about winning you're going to enjoy coaching."

Noah is also the perfect fit for Thibodeau’s defense, and his defensive abilities were suddenly highlighted. The new coach’s scheme asks the bigs to step out more to the perimeter, stop penetration and cut off passing lanes, all while being ready to drop back into the paint and guard the rim when necessary. 

Noah has the kind of agility and lateral quickness you would expect to see in a guard, not a borderline 7-footer. That, plus his length, allows him to switch to point guards and wings in isolation. At the same time, he has the strength and size to drop back and defend the block when necessary.  

While this is a recent video from Coach Nick of BBall Breakdown, it highlights how well Noah's defense and Thibodeau's schemes fit together, something which has been true from the beginning.

Noah will often make four or five defensive plays on one possession, utilizing his high basketball IQ to process Thibodeau's complex system, and using his rare agility to adapt to what the offense is doing— whether it's rotating, switching, icing, cutting off passing lanes or challenging shots. Rarely is there a defensive possession with Noah's defensive presence not felt. 

That meshing of competitive desire and Noah’s defensive abilities with Thibodeau’s schemes allowed Noah to begin to blossom in their first year together, with him ending the 2010-11 season being named to the All-Defensive second team for the first time.

His 2011-12 season was much the same. From his third through fifth seasons, Noah averaged 10.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists, a significant improvement over the 6.7, 6.6 and 1.2 he averaged in his first two.

While his status had greatly improved, he was still mostly known more for his effort than his talent.

His boundless energy was seen more to compensate for limitations than anything else. The competitive fire was the impetus for more than one come-from-behind win, but it was Derrick Rose executing down the stretch.

Then another thing happened that would force Noah to lift his game to another level: Rose tore his ACL in the 2012 playoffs.


2012-2014: The All-Star Years

Noah started to establish himself as more than a defensive specialist who brought bench-like energy to the starting lineup in the beginning of the 2012-13 season.

He had the best game of his career to that point on Dec. 7, posting 30 points, 23 rebounds and six assists.

Less than two weeks later, he posted his second career triple-double.

Those efforts started to get him more national attention, and it propelled him into his first All-Star Game where, in typical Noah fashion, he brought full effort on both ends of the court. That’s not something the All-Star Game is used to.

However, recurring problems with plantar fasciitis forced him to sit a good portion of the second half of the season. Still, Noah came back early from the injury and was there for the postseason.

In spite of playing hobbled, Noah was the emotional and moral leader of the team, which won a hard-fought series against the Brooklyn Nets that went the full seven games.

Noah’s efforts that season landed him a co-First Team All-Defensive team nod, one vote for MVP and a fourth-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year balloting.

With Derrick Rose returning in 2013-14, both the team and its fans had high expectations. The excitement for the season was palpable, and after a discouraging start, Rose got back into the swing of things, the team started to gel and it started winning.

Then Rose went down for the season with a torn meniscus. The team, disheartened and piling up injuries, went into a downward spiral and started 15 lineups over 27 games. The Bulls just couldn't seem to get healthy. 

After getting blown out by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec 19, the Bulls started to get some traction, going 5-3 over an eight-game stretch.

Then, on Jan 6, after gaining a modicum of traction, the announcement came that Luol Deng, their All-Star small forward, was being traded to Cleveland for picks and a player (Andrew Bynum) who was just going to be waived in a salary dump. 

The Bulls were “officially” tanking.

The problem is, someone forgot to tell Noah and Thibodeau.

Now, as the lone All-Star on the team, Noah lifted his game to a place that almost no one—including him—thought he could reach. As he told Zillgitt in the previously linked article, 

I used to say I'm not gifted, but I take that back. I feel more and more gifted, and I'm feeling more and more confident in what I'm doing and I feel I can still get better."

It's showing, and the team is thriving, in part because they're getting healthy.

After starting 15 different lineups in the first 33 games of the season, they've only started four in the 45 games since. The starting five of Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer and Noah have now started 21 consecutive games. That's the longest run of the same starting five in the Thibodeau era. 

Health is a big part, but it also has a lot to do with Noah's expanding skills. Thibodeau redesigned the offense to go through Noah from the elbow, and his remarkable passing ability for a big man was put on full display.

Noah has six 11-assist games since Feb 6, a 30-game stretch. All other NBA centers combined have only 27 such games in the last 30 years.

And, in the more important aspect of winning, the Bulls have turned around in the re-imagined offense. Since the Luol Deng trade, they are 32-14, the best record in the Eastern Conference. The only team in the NBA with more wins in that span is the San Antonio Spurs.

Noah also took over the transition game, which is better explained by this fantastic compilation, courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney, than by words alone.

The Bulls have had the best defense in the NBA over that span. And while their offense is still only the 25th most efficient, it’s notching 5.5 more points per 100 possessions since being run through Noah. And, both the offense and the defense are close to two points per 100 possessions better when Noah’s on the court.

Noah has established himself as something no one thought he could be—a player who can carry a contender. The winning speaks for itself. As a result, he’s not only emerged as a top-five candidate for MVP, he’s made “point center” a term in the process.

Here’s perhaps the most remarkable summation of Noah’s achievement this year: He has 956 points, 398 assists and 849 rebounds. In the history of the NBA, the only other centers to do that are Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. That’s what we in basketball circles refer to as "elite company."

 

***

Noah is having one of the most unique seasons in NBA history, without question.

When Rose returns (again) next season, the pair will from a true superstar tandem. N

What should be particularly exciting is watching Rose play off of Noah. 

In addition to his sharp passing on give-and-goes, Noah has assisted on 87 of the 359 (account required)  three-point field goals made while he's on the court this year, or just shy of a quarter of them.

Of Rose's 16 treys, 14 of them were assisted. And, while he might have had some struggles from the field, he was efficient in catch-and-shoots, notching an effective field-goal percentage of .588. 

One of the questions about Rose is if he'd be better off playing shooting guard than point guard. Noah's new role as a point center could very well be the answer to that. 

Whether it's Rose cutting to the rim for the alley-oop, or spotting up behind the three-point line, the two can work a special kind of partnership. If another tier-one scorer, like Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love were to join them, it could make for a pretty special offense. 

When a player breaks out the way that Noah has, we tend to forget the events that proceeded it. Noah’s accomplishments come as a result of incremental improvements throughout his career, not a single summer.

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He learned to first be a teammate, then a leader. He got stronger and worked on his skill set. He found the perfect coach to complement his strengths. Then, he had to be put in the perfect situation to excel. Some may take that, or even use it, as a dismissal of his accomplishments. They shouldn't. 

Having risen to meet the challenges he faced doesn't diminish the challenges themselves. 

Noah’s season is the result of a large-souled big man learning from life, coaches and teammates. His career year is the fruition of a process, not an anomaly. He’s the rare player who can dominate games without scoring a lot of points because of his tremendous basketball IQ, leadership and wide-ranging set of skills on both ends of the court.

Perhaps that’s what makes Noah’s story so inspirational and empowering. He proves that hard work, receiving constructive criticism, broadening your skills and continually striving to improve pays off—no matter what your path is. By doing so, Noah has grown out of his limitations in a way few players have, and that is something we all want to believe we can do.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.com, and current through Apr 10, 2014. 

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