Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah


Inside Look: The intriguing life of Joakim Noah

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

By Aggrey Sam

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 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'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.

Watch: Dwyane Wade's boyish exuberance comes out after his first win with hometown Bulls

Watch: Dwyane Wade's boyish exuberance comes out after his first win with hometown Bulls

NBA superstar Dwyane Wade showed just how happy he was to capture his first regular season win for this hometown Bulls as he walked to the locker room on Thursday night.

Wade was unable to contain his excitement as he left the court, blurting out the following.

"Thats the way to do it. That's a homecoming right there. I like that one."

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Wade finished his Bulls debut with 22 points, including hitting four three-pointers, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out five assists.

All capped off by a postgame hug with mom too.

Now that's one heck of a homecoming right there.


Michael Carter-Williams learns on the fly, thrives in Bulls debut

Michael Carter-Williams learns on the fly, thrives in Bulls debut

Ten days ago Michael Carter-Williams was the starting point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Circumstances can change quickly in the NBA, as the 2013 Rookie of the Year found out when he was traded two weeks ago for the second time in his four-year NBA career. But Carter-Williams also realized just as quickly the value in carving out a role, and he made a great first impression on his coaches and teammates Thursday night in the Bulls’ 105-99 win over the Celtics.

The 6-foot-6 guard played a crucial role in the second half in slowing down a potent Celtics offense, and he provided an offensive jolt midway through the fourth quarter that helped push the Bulls to their first win of the season.

His numbers in 17 minutes won’t jump off the score sheet – he tallied five points, six rebounds and three assists – but his impact on the game was felt on both ends, and in his three stints he cemented himself as a key part of the Bulls’ rotation moving forward.

Carter-Williamas was thrown into unfamiliar territory late in the second quarter. Isaiah Canaan was the first guard off the bench for Fred Hoiberg, but after he missed all three of his 3-point attempts and the Celtics reeled off a 14-4 run to pull within three, 43-40, Hoiberg deployed Carter-Williams alongside starting point guard Rajon Rondo.

In the 10 days since Carter-Williams had joined the Bulls, his time in practice had been spent learning the point guard position. But with Rajon Rondo playing well in the first half, Hoiberg kept his starter in and substituted in Carter-Williams, a natural point guard, into a three-guard lineup with Rondo and Jimmy Butler.

Having Rondo next to him, Carter-Williams said, helped him ease into the Bulls’ offensive sets that wound up making a difference in the fourth quarter.

“He definitely helps me out a lot,” he said of Rondo. “He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever talked to about basketball, he knows everybody’s position, he’s a great point guard and I’m glad I get to learn from someone like him.”

Carter-Williams’ impact was felt immediately. The Celtics missed their next four shots, with their only points coming off free throws after Nikola Mirotic fouled Jae Crowder on a 3-point attempt. The Bulls pushed their second-quarter lead back to nine by the end of the half as Carter-Williams defended both Avery Bradley and Gerald Green.

That same substitution pattern followed late in the third quarter after the Celtics used a 14-5 run to pull within a possession of the Bulls. The Celtics took their first and only lead of the night on an Isaiah Thomas 3-pointer, but with Carter-Williams again playing next to Rondo the Bulls reeled off seven straight points to push the lead back to six, 75-69.

Carter-Williams opened the fourth quarter on the floor without Rondo, though Wade initiated most of the offense. Playing off the ball, Carter-Williams continued to press defensively while waiting for his opportunity to contribute on the other end.

And when he got his chance, he made the most of it. After missing his first four attempts, Carter-Williams was left alone on the left wing for a 3-pointer that he connected on. Butler then stole an Avery Bradley pass in transition and found Carter-Williams, whose floater in the lane pushed the Bulls’ lead back 12, 93-81, with less than 8 minutes to play.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

When Thomas reeled off five quick points to pull the Celtics within five Hoiberg pulled Carter-Williams for Wade, who assisted on two consecutive Taj Gibson baskets before connecting on a 3-pointer with 26 seconds left to seal the Bulls’ home opener victory.

It was as successful a debut as a reserve point guard could have, with Carter-Williams logging the only positive rating (+3) among the five players who came off the bench for the Bulls. A 30-point first quarter allowed Hoiberg to play Carter-Williams alongside Rondo in the second and third quarters, and the results were evident, even with Carter-Williams playing a “new” position.

“I think it was tough for me because when I was first in there I was with Rondo, and so when he’s in there he runs the 1 and I play the 2,” he said after the game. “So a lot of times in practice I was learning the 1, and it’s pretty hard to learn everybody’s position in one week. So I was just looking for anybody to tell me where to go, what to do, and just try to make the best of it.”

Despite the unfamiliar spot on the floor, Carter-Williams did make the best of it. In nine minutes alongside Rondo, the Bulls’ defensive rating (points per 100 possessions allowed) was 99.1, an improvement from the 103.6 rating the team logged on the night. Carter-Williams’ individual defensive rating was 95.1, the second best number among guards behind Wade (89.8).

The numbers weren’t as solid on the offensive end, with Rondo and Carter-Williams together managing just 93.5 points per 100 possessions. But the Bulls’ surprisingly hot night from beyond the arc – 11-for-25 – allowed Hoiberg to focus more on the defensive end, where the Bulls wound up holding the Celtics to 99 points a night after they tallied 122 against the Nets.

And Carter-Williams still came up with two key passes late in the third quarter as the Celtics threatened. First he found Mirotic open for an 18-foot jumper on the left baseline. Then he grabbed a missed Wade layup and kicked it back out to Mirotic, who buried a 3-pointer in the final minute of the third quarter to push the Bulls’ lead to six heading into the fourth quarter.

“I love Michael’s game. He had a couple times where he had no idea what he was doing when I called the play, but that’s going to happen. He’s only been around the team a few days. But he played with a lot of poise,” Hoiberg said. “I like how he can get into the paint. He can get downhill. That’s something that every team wants.”

It’s an important year for Carter-Williams. In addition to him learning a new system on the fly, he’s in a contract year and said it’s a personal goal of his to cement himself as the backup behind Rondo.

With Jerian Grant inactive and Canaan sitting the final three quarters, Thursday night may have done just that. And whatever his playing time looks like going forward, or who he’s playing with, Carter-Williams is hoping to make the same impact he did Thursday night.

“I think I can really lead us no matter who’s on the court,” he said. “Whatever Fred thinks is best he’s going to do, and of course it’s a personal goal of mine to just be on the floor as much as I can.

“I was able to find my rhythm a little bit (in the second half) and just try to help the team. Defensively, whether it’s rebounding, getting steals; offensively, scoring or making the right pass or the right play.”