Posted Apr 22 2010 10:34AM
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Brad Miller knew Joakim Noah only from some brief, on-court encounters banging in the paint or from what others said about the young Chicago Bulls center. That's all the veteran NBA big man had to go on when he was traded to Chicago in February 2009.
"When I got here, I just thought, 'Goofy kid,' '' Miller said, smiling as he reflected Wednesday. "I'd heard a little about him from some teammates: 'Goofball.' "
That was almost two years into Noah's NBA career. To most on the outside -- not just fans, but around the league among players and coaches -- he was the guy we all saw shaking hands with commissioner David Stern on that June night in 2007. Seersucker suit, bow tie, big hair, little cap, long fingers on his left hand in a "V" peace sign, toothy smile.
Bob Ociepka joined coach Vinny Del Negro's staff in Chicago in July 2008. That month, the Bulls coaches took a group to the Orlando summer league and Noah, on the heels of an underwhelming rookie season, was among them. In body, anyway. "We didn't do very well as a team, and Jo didn't look very good," Ociepka said. "Watching that, I said, 'Boy, he's got a lot of work to do.' "
Fast-forward to Monday night in Cleveland. Noah, having brought the wrath of Quicken Loans Arena onto himself with a flippant, off-hand jab at the local culture in northeast Ohio, shrugged off the boos for a terrific 25-point, 13-rebound performance. Coping with (and outplaying) Shaquille O'Neal, rebounding and pushing the ball upcourt, stopping Cavalier attackers at the rim, threading back-door passes to teammate Derrick Rose -- it was a revelation. Worthy of some reevaluation.
Miller on Noah now: "He's just making great progress, with his athleticism, his talent, everything. Last summer I worked with him on shooting that 15-foot shot, and now he's taking it. It's a lot of little things. I go slow [on moves]. I tell him, 'You don't have to go fast.' He's good at picking up that stuff."
Ociepka on Noah now: "He works hard, he stays after practice, he puts in the time. He's absolutely committed to what we're doing. He asks questions -- he wants to know why we do certain things -- and he has input. He's driven to be successful."
The Joakim Noah fan club has been growing for a while now, even if it took a silly shot at Cleveland to flush the meetings into public view. The 7-footer from Florida has gone from alleged Draft mistake and unmotivated silver-spooner (son of tennis pro Yannick Noah and Miss Sweden 1978) to a high-octane and effective NBA center (10.7 ppg, 11 rpg). From the pony-tailed dynamo who produced arguably the most memorable highlight of the 2009 playoffs (his steal and dash downcourt for a dunk against Boston) to a Bulls team leader who turned in an all-around impressive performance in Game 2.
Never mind those cellphone commercials with Dwyane Wade -- it's Noah whom Charles Barkley calls his favorite player in the league. One Chicago columnist who predicted that Noah would be a bust three years into his career already has literally eaten those words (with a little salsa on newsprint, mmm).
His list of admirers is growing.
"He plays hard," Dallas forward Shawn Marion said. "He blocks shots and rebounds for them, and he's definitely improving his scoring touch around the basket. He's become a threat inside the paint."
Said Atlanta's Al Horford: "He's serious about basketball. He goes about his business very seriously, and he never stops playing and working hard."
Horford, of course, knows the many sides of Noah, dating to their days together at the University of Florida. They won back-to-back NCAA championships with the Gators, reaching the NBA -- with Minnesota Timberwolves guard Corey Brewer -- as 2007 lottery picks. Horford was old even when he was young -- mature enough to step into a leadership role as a rookie with the Hawks. Noah? Not quite so fast.
"Jo is different," Horford said. "We were roommates in college. He'd go to bed in this long, African robe. He'd always carry himself differently than others, but in a good way. He's a lot of fun to be around. He cracks me up."
That seems to be a key to understanding and appreciating Noah -- simultaneously holding two conflicting thoughts in your head about him. He is a free spirit and a committed pro. A winner and a flake. A bundle of unorthodox moves and skills and a valuable piece of Chicago's present and future. His name was bandied about in trade rumors as recently as last summer, yet it's hard to think of five centers you'd rather have over the next 10 years or so.
"It feels great," Noah said earlier this season of his improvement. "I'm not going to lie. It feels great. But I'm also enjoying the fact we're becoming a better team every night. We're competing every night. Shutting up all the doubters is motivating."
The Bulls set priorities back in October to improve at rebounding and on defense. They wound up leading the league in total rebounds and ranked third in defensive field-goal percentage, with Noah as their most vital contributor in both categories. Chicago was 13-15 when Noah was hurt or otherwise didn't start, including a 10-game losing streak from Feb. 27 through March 19 when he was out with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
No wonder Del Negro wanted to play Noah more minutes, regardless of any precautionary quotas from the front office.
One of the games in which Noah went over his limit was a 115-111 overtime victory against Portland. "We had no answer for [LaMarcus] Aldridge," Ociepka said. "Our answer was Jo. We put him in there and he rose to the challenge. He helped contain Aldridge and as a team we drew energy from him. He helps, he sacrifices. We're a different team without him."
Said Del Negro: "He's a different player than he was -- his work ethic, his experience in the playoffs, everything about him. His offense has gotten better and his confidence has grown."
Some lessons imparted by the coaches, including former Bulls assistant Del Harris, have helped. So did that Boston series. So did the summer work with Miller. So did just growing up -- Noah turned 25 in February and generally has left behind antics such as the public-drinking citation in Gainesville in 2008, late arrivals to various meetings or workouts or, as a rookie, berating former assistant coach Ron Adams.
"Jo has a free spirit," Del Negro said. "You have to manage his personality. But he brings great energy all the time, great spirit, and he wants to get better and win. So he's about all the right stuff. He's just got to continually concentrate on what we want to execute out there and bring that energy because guys feed off that."
So it was ironic, really, that Noah caused an NBA buzz over the weekend by calling Boston's Kevin Garnett "a dirty player." Elbows aside, the passion that the veteran Celtics star radiates on the court isn't all that different from the emotions and desire that Noah shows.
Expressed differently, with a little less intensity? Sure. But Noah oozes heart, same as Garnett, with a game big enough now to keep up.
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