Noah’s progress right on track, Gray re-adopts underdog role

Aaron Gray
Bulls rookie Aaron Gray

Posted August 28, 2007 | Story and photos by Adam Fluck
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The common piece of advice that rookies receive from younger players with a year or two of NBA experience under their belts is something along the lines of, “Get ready, because it’s a LONG season.”

Most college programs play anywhere from 30-40 games in a given season, but that’s not even the halfway point for the 82-game grind of the NBA. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance for rookies preparing for the league to put their time in during the offseason.

The good news is that Chicago’s two rookie big men have been regulars as of late at the Berto Center. In Joakim Noah’s case, he’s diligently worked to rehab his right shoulder while keeping his conditioning at a high level. He’s put in three to three and a half hour workouts five days a week since returning from summer league ball in mid-July. Last week was Aaron Gray’s first full week at the team’s training facility as he trains with a goal of making the regular season roster in mind.

Perhaps where the offseason work matters most, though, is at the end of the year.

“You win and lose games and make or break seasons in fractions,” said Bulls Strength and Conditioning Coach Erik Helland, now entering his 21st season with the team. “We try to exploit every single advantage we possibly can because you never know when it’s going to come down to a last-second shot in a Game 7 of a series. Training can help provide that margin of reserve necessary to make that play."

Aaron Gray

Gray’s workout begins in the weightroom of the Berto Center, where he usually gets started by 9 or 9:30 and spends around 90 minutes.

"Working with the staff here is a great opportunity," said Gray, a 7-footer who spent four years at the University of Pittsburgh. "The work I put in this summer is going to be one of the keys to me being on the court."

Given that he was a second round draft pick, there are no guarantees for Gray. The majority of players taken after the first round do not end up in the NBA; rather they either play in the NBA's Development League or go overseas. And that's exactly what is motivating Gray this summer.

"It’s great because I’m kind of the underdog again," he said. "I’ve kind of played that role my whole life and had some good success at Pitt. Now I’m here, back at the bottom of the totem pole, where I’ve been before. I’ve worked my way up to the top before and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to do the same here."

Joakim Noah

Despite working about an hour a day to focus on strengthening and rehabbing his shoulder, Helland says Noah has adapted “ridiculously well… he's a phenomenal and consistent worker, he's very coachable, and he picks things up and retains them very quickly.”

“Training has a progressive nature to it," Helland added. "With Noah, we started off fairly basic and will graduate to the more complex, stressful things. He’s progressed right on schedule and has become very, very predictable. It’s been a cumulative result of his quality efforts."

Kirk Hinrich

Veterans such as Kirk Hinrich also work closely with the team's strength and conditioning staff—the sessions are very hands on and intensive. However, his feedback and training experience allows them to do a much broader type of training. Hinrich is essentially at a point the younger players will ideally be at in 2-3 years of hard work.

“Kirk has had a pretty good offseason so far," said Helland. "When he trains, there’s no messing around. He comes in and he’s focused. He’s smart and he’s coachable and he’s a pleasure to work with.”

Aaron Gray

Gray was among the Bulls’ leaders in summer league play, averaging 13.0 points and 6.5 rebounds at the Rocky Mountain Revue in Utah and 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds at the Pepsi Pro Summer League in Orlando.

“It was good to get out and play real basketball again,” he said. “We may not have been playing against a full roster of NBA guys, but a lot of the top picks from this year’s class and the last few years were there, so it was competitive and a good transition. It gave us a chance to work with the coaching staff and learn a little bit about how this organization plays basketball.”

Noah and Hinrich

Noah's charismatic and outgoing personality has been nothing but a positive thing in the gym and on the court. He's blended well with the veterans' no-nonsense attitude when it comes to getting the job done.

"He’s a wonderful free spirit, but at the same time he’s been nothing but a true professional," Helland stated. "It’s been a great combination and he’s someone who people just like being around. He makes the work environment better and he makes other people better.”

Aaron Gray

In just a few short weeks, Noah and Gray have already developed a good working relationship. The two are on similar workout schedules as they prepare for their first NBA season.

“It’s great working with him because he’s all about working hard and getting better," Gray said of matching up against the 9th overall pick. "Some guys might get complacent, but he knows he’s got a lot of work to do just like the rest of us in order to make this team better. My hope is that going against him every day will help make me quicker and more athletic. And when he goes against me, I’m going to be real physical with him and challenge him. It will be the best of both worlds.”