Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah

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Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011
3:19 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

PORTLANDId be lying if I said that when I first watched Joakim Noah play basketball, I thought hed develop into a top-five NBA center for a championship contender. In fact, I wasnt sure Noahthe son of former tennis star and current rock star Yannick Noah; he was also more famous for being a ball boy at the vaunted ABCD Camp for high school All-Americans before he was finally selected to play in the event before his 12th-grade yearcould play college basketball for a major program. I wasnt alone in my opinions.

Not a lot of people believed in Jo when he was playing. Nobody thought hed be a good player, recalled Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney, who recruited Noah when he was an assistant coach at Villanova, his alma mater. When, Id say, Hey, Im going to see Joakim Noah play at LawrencevillePeople would say, That kid? Hes just all right.

In terms of skills, that was a correct assessment. A gangly, uncoordinated high school prospect, Noah was far from a blue-chipper during his prep days. He still played with his trademark energy and enthusiasm, but he wasnt close to a finished product.

When I first observed Noah in AAU competition, I did think he could be a productive college playerat the right level, most likely in the Atlantic-10 Conference or a lower-level Big East program. A summer later, he continued to grow on me and I was sold after seeing him outwork higher-ranked and more skilled players. By this time, he was considered an upper-echelon recruit, though still not a star.

He would have changed our program if he had gone to Villanova because he has all of the characteristics that you want in a big man, Pinckney told CSNChicago.com. The thing that stood out to me about him was communication on the court. He was yelling, screaming, Watch the screen! I got your man!

I had never seen a big guy play with this much energy in a long time, he continued, thinking back to a specific tournament in New Jersey in which Noah participated. You could hear him in the gym all the way in the upstairs portion where I and the other coaches were watching, and there were three games going on all at once. This dude was all over the place.

Noah eventually signed with the University of Florida and while he didnt immediately stand out as a freshmanplaying behind then-senior and fellow future pro David Leethere were signs he was only scratching the surface of his talents.

Florida head coach Billy Donovan allowed him to use his full skill set, noted Pinckney, a long-time NBA veteran and former college national champion. I always felt that because of the position and having played the position, big guys develop late. I knew he was going to be good; I didnt know hed be a first-round pick or lottery guy.

In his freshman year, we played them in the NCAA Tournament and he was only in for a little bit, and probably didnt play as well as he could have, but still was very active and impacted the game, continued Pinckney, whose Villanova team beat Florida that season. The next year when we played them, when we were watching the film the night before, it was frightening. We were saying to each other, How are we going to score?

We couldnt get a shot off. Randy Foye and Allan Ray, all these guys that got drafted and went to the NBAwere talking about guards, who routinely get to the basket, blow past big men and score at the rimthey couldnt even drive past him, let alone finish.

Noah, of course, would go on to lead his Gators squad to the national championship as a sophomore and again as a junior before declaring for the NBA Draft and being selected by the Bulls. His rookie season, however, didnt go so smoothly, as the pro level wasnt as easy for him to conquer as the college game.

I think the jury was out that first year. I think on top of all the struggles he had on the court, he had injuries, too, said Pinckney, who was by then coaching with the Minnesota Timberwolves. His shot became the focus of talk about his game, instead of his shot-blocking and rebounding abilities. Hes overcome all of that to become a pretty good shooter from the perimeter, a very good free-throw shooter and an elite-level offensive rebounder. From the first season to the second season, he made huge strides.

Instead of whispers he was overrated, a malcontent and a potential bust, Noah became a Chicago fan favorite in his second campaign, capped by his pivotal role in the now-legendary Bulls-Celtics epic seven-game first-round playoff series. Last season, he further emerged, becoming one of the leagues premier rebounders, a defensive force, a much-improved offensive player and again, a postseason lightning rod with his controversial commentsnever a shrinking violet, his charisma makes him loved in the Windy City and hated elsewhereabout the city of Cleveland (his early-season dust-up with former Cavaliers superstar LeBron James didnt help matters there).

Heading into the current Bulls season, Noah inked a long-term contract extension with Chicago, extinguishing rumors hed be dealt for the likes of Carmelo Anthony. Having further strengthened his once-spindly frame and polished his outside shot in the offseasonpreviously a weaknessas well as thriving in new Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus system and briefly leading the league in rebounding, the teams emotional leader appeared to be on his way to his first All-Star appearance before being sidelined in December following surgery on his right thumb.

I think he has all the tools to be a great player. I dont think theres any question he will be, just because there arent many bigs that play with that type of intensity. He just plays so hard, its just a matter of time until everything comes together for him, Pinckneylike Noah, a New Yorkergushed. Barring injury, I dont think theres any question. He just plays so hard. That, to me, alone is his greatest skill.

Youre always trying to get guys to play with energy. You dont have to do that with him.

Traveling with the Bulls on the teams current five-game road trip, Noah can be seen before games, working out with Bulls assistant coach Rick Brunson and occasionally veteran reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, pushing himself through grueling drills before retreating to the opposing arenas weight room.

He works to exhaustion. He tries to take his frustration out in his workouts, observed Pinckney. All that energy he has bottled up inside, he lets it all out.

In some ways, he might still believe hes that kid that so many people doubtedincluding yours truly. Im just glad I changed my mind early.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's 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.

In first game of post-deadline era, Bulls come up with comeback overtime win over Suns

In first game of post-deadline era, Bulls come up with comeback overtime win over Suns

The post-deadline era has begun for the Bulls, with the directives clear on developing their young players and seeing what can be done in the last third of the season.

And while their youth sparked them early, it was the headliners who stepped up late in their 128-121 overtime win over the Phoenix Suns on Friday night at the United Center, as the team was clearly adjusting to life without Taj Gibson, who was traded Thursday.

Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade each had sluggish starts, to say the least. Each looked like he was going through an island-like malaise through the better part of three quarters before waking up.

Butler finally ignored the snooze button at the most opportune time, nearly winning the game in regulation with a tying triple, then a fadeaway 15-footer over Eric Bledsoe to cap off a late comeback that saw the Bulls rebound from an eight-point deficit with a few minutes left in the fourth.

"That's what great players do," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "They step up when you need them the most. Jimmy obviously had a tough night shooting the ball (early). ... What he's been doing all year, taking over the game in the fourth, and tonight was no different."

Then Wade, in one of his few post-halftime mistakes, controversially fouled Suns sharpshooter Devin Booker on a triple with 1.5 seconds left, but Booker missed the last of the three free throws to send the game into overtime.

"I think it was good defense," said Butler before giving a nod to his controversial whistle that went his way a week ago. "We don't wanna go back too far, but a foul's a foul."

Wade and Butler continued the assault into the extra session, with Wade rising for a late flush over Suns center Alex Len and raising his arms in celebration — having put together a 23-point performance after a scoreless first half.

"That dunk he had was unbelievable," Hoiberg said. "I should give him another week off."

In the early stages, Butler wasn't as futile as Wade, but he wasn't much better, scoring just eight before the fourth but being more aggressive and assertive with his moments and jump shots, finishing with 22 to go along with nine assists and four steals.

"Just keep shooting the ball and eventually it'll go in," Butler said. "And they did. Coaches put the ball in my hands, I kept taking the same shots, making the same plays. Then they went in."

The Suns led most of the way, mostly due to their team-wide speed and athleticism, getting out on the break the way they did in the first meeting two weeks ago. Booker scored 27, while Bledsoe, TJ Warren and Marquese Chriss each scored 17. Bledsoe added 10 assists and seven rebounds in 40 minutes.

They dominated the fast-break department at a 27-16 clip, and the Bulls actually countered with 3-point shooting, hitting 12 triples and shooting 46 percent from 3.

Nikola Mirotic was 4-for-7 from deep on the way to a 20-point night, while Denzel Valentine put together his best showing as a pro with 15 points, all coming on five made 3s.

Three straight triples from Valentine pulled the Bulls to within one late in the third quarter. The shots were decisive and confident — perhaps as he knew he wouldn't be removed for anyone at the first mistake.

"I like it, take the shots when you're open. Sometimes when you're not open, still shoot it and we know to get back," Butler said.

There were plenty of mishaps and things to complain about as the Bulls hit a new wave, but at least it started with some positive vibes after a day of uncertainty and confusion.

Chance the Rapper poses with Benny the Bull at United Center

Chance the Rapper poses with Benny the Bull at United Center

Two Chicago legends were spotted courtside before the Bulls tipped off against the Phoenix Suns on Friday. 

Chance the Rapper, recent winner of three Grammy Awards, snapped a photo with Benny the Bull at the United Center.

The south sider is spending a few months back in his hometown before starting a nationwide tour in April. His stop at the Bulls game should come as no surprise, as the "Coloring Book" rapper has become big friends with Jimmy Butler. Tough to name a more talented duo than that. 

Chance was also seen in New Orleans last weekend for the NBA All-Star festivities.

We know he's already a White Sox team ambassador, but are the Bulls next up?