20 in 20: Will Noah become an elite center?

20 in 20: Will Noah become an elite center?
September 19, 2010, 9:39 pm
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Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010
4:40 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.

11. Will Joakim Noah become an elite NBA center this season?

On the cusp of an All-Star berth before plantar fasciitis sidelined him last season, Noah's contribution to the Bulls went far beyond the 10.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks he averaged last season. In a nutshell, here's Noah's value: Derrick Rose is the best player on the Bulls; Noah is the most important. Any arguments can be dismissed simply by recalling the team's woeful skid in his absence last season, during which Chicago resembled a bottom-of-the-barrel squad, as opposed to their take-on-all-comers aura with the Florida product in the lineup.

That said, Noah can't yet be quite regarded as an elite--meaning a player more or less guaranteed to not only impact individual games, but dominate them within his realm of control on a nightly basis--center; not yet, at least. The day he gains that status, however, appears to be coming sooner, rather than later.

Noah will never consistently score a boatload of points. Nor will he kill his opponents softly, in a fashion where his stats outstrip his impact. Instead, the inverse is true.

The type of player where a single-digit scoring game doesn't always accurately reflect his impact, Noah gets as excited about taking a charge, fighting for a key rebound, blocking a shot or even a big play by a teammate as he gets about two points of his own. His infectious energy, burning desire to win and ability to remain unrattled under pressure--after winning two national championships in college, his breakout playoff series against Boston in 2009 and facing the scorn of seemingly the entire city of Cleveland, it's safe to say he doesn't get fazed by much--are both endearing and unique, in a league where even some of the most passionate players treat the game as a business.

His physical gifts are more than adequate, although the league possesses plenty of players with comparable size, length and athleticism. The difference with Noah, however, is that not only does he make the most of his 6-foot-11 frame, but he simply outworks his opponents, whether it's running the floor in transition, hustling for loose balls, moving his feet defensively on the perimeter or ekeking out the most of the strength in his spindly frame to fight for position with behemoths in the low post and of course, battling for rebounds on both ends of the floor.

One of the NBA's best rebounders, Noah has an innate ability to anticipate where errant shots will land, coupled with a determination to beat his man to the ball, maximize his wingspan and quick feet and just desire caroms more than anybody else on the court. Defensively, he may not be a shot-blocking force in the mold of a Dwight Howard--although he swats his fair share of shots--but his understanding of help defense, ability to move his feet well enough to defend quicker players on switches and generally protect the rim are severely underated.

But while he gobbles up bushels of boards and is stout on defense, the subtler qualities of Noah's game often go without mention. Described universally as free-spirited, he's earned the respect of teammates with a strong work ethic and leadership by example. He's often credited with being the team's emotional leader, but that almost takes away from his high basketball I.Q., as he frequently takes responsibility for the entire squad defensively, instructing his teammates on where to be in position in anticipation of the opposition's offensive plays.

Yes, Noah is still a work in progress on offense, although his sheer effort and favorable matchups make it possible for him to put up big scoring numbers on occasion. As last season went on, though, his post moves became more effective, and although fans might cringe at the sight of Noah launching his unconventional jumper from 15 feet out, it became an increasingly accurate weapon in his arsenal. His best offensive attribute--which goes hand in hand with his savvy--is his passing ability. Noah's passing isn't quite at the level of former teammate and close friend Brad Miller, but even without being viewed as a major threat from the mid-range area, he's effective in the high-low game as a passer and is a playmaking threat on his occasional coast-to-coast jaunts on fast breaks.

When the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs in the spring, Noah vowed to come back physically stronger, to better withstand the pounding he takes in the paint from bigger giants in the post. Combined with an improved offensive repertoire, his ascension to one of the league's elite at his position--along with his debut All-Star appearance--should occur in the very near future, especially with defensive-minded new Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm and the addition of power forward Carlos Boozer alongside him on the block. Now, all he has to do is stay healthy.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.