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Karnes: Noah should be more appreciated (April 11)

| Friday, April 11, 2014

Not much is pretty about Bull’s center Joakim Noah’s game. His jump shot spins like a tornado, and he runs like a baby giraffe taking its first uneasy steps. With his unruly hair, gap-toothed grin and awkward rendition of a finger-guns celebration, Noah has more in common the typical energy player than the stereotypical NBA star. Yet despite his gangly appearance and arguably ugly style of play, Noah has surpassed all expectations to become one of the top players in the league.

Drafted seventh by the Bulls after leading Florida to back-to-back championships in the 2006 and 2007 NCAA tournaments, Noah’s lack of bulk and underdeveloped offensive game elicited concerns that he may have peaked at the college level. Luckily for the Bulls, after a rocky rookie campaign Noah soon developed into a double-double machine and defensive menace, with his passionate, loud style of the court jiving well with young star point guard Derrick Rose’s more reserved approach.

The Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau in 2010, and the defensive mastermind’s system quickly established a new identity in Chicago: accountability, teamwork and intensity. No one represented this better than Noah, who became the lynchpin of the defense using his quickness, length and leadership. Since Noah and Thibodeau’s union, the Bulls have finished top-two in fewest points allowed per game each season, including a first-place mark of 91.6 this season. The suffocating defense headed by Noah and small forward Luol Deng paired with Derrick Rose’s ascension to MVP status allowed the Bulls to capture the number one seed in each of Thibodeau’s first two seasons.

Then Derrick Rose tore his ACL, Chicago bowed out in the first round of the 2012 playoffs and doubts began to set in again. With Rose out, the Bulls seemed rudderless, lacking an offensive presence to complement their defense. In the face of adversity, Noah responded with his finest season yet, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, with 11.9, 11.1, 4.0, 2.1 and 1.2, respectively. Those totals drove the Bulls to a fifth-seed in the East, and earned Noah his first All-Star berth and a spot on the NBA All-Defensive first team.

Rose returned for a short and unsuccessful comeback this season, but the Bulls limped out to a 14-18 start, leading Chicago’s front office traded leading scorer Deng to the Cavaliers in an attempt to free up cap space. Other than Noah, the team was made mostly of journeyman veterans or inexperienced youngsters, and all but the most die-hard fans to write off the Bulls’ chances at contention. Few expected what happened next. Since the Deng trade, Chicago is an amazing 32-14, and are tied for third in the Eastern Conference.

Even without Rose and Deng, the Bulls have been able to persevere due to the magnificence of Noah. He’s maintained his stalwart defense and rebounding skills, but also demonstrated improved range on his jump shot and his unique passing skills for a big man after taking over as the focus of the Bulls’ offense. Noah currently is besting his career-highs with 12.6 points and 11.2 rebounds, and his 5.2 assists per game are more than any forward or center in the league not named LeBron or Durant. That unique vision has also enabled him to tie Lance Stephenson for the NBA-lead with four triple-doubles on the season. The fourth came Tuesday in the Bulls’ 102-87 win over Minnesota, during which Noah also broke Chicago’s franchise record for assists in a season.

Out of the shadow of Rose and Deng, Noah is starting to get the appreciation he deserves, earning MVP chants from his home crowd and a place on the MVP ballot of voters like ESPN’s Chris Broussard. Prior to the Bulls’ March 13 matchup against Howard and the Rockets, Houston coach Kevin McHale said Noah deserved to be picked as Defensive Player of the Year.

“He should be Defensive Player of the Year,” McHale said. “They’ve been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, determination and confidence.”

That night Noah proved McHale’s point, coming just an assist shy of a triple-double while harassing Howard into a subpar line of 14 just points, 10 rebounds and a whopping seven turnovers.

Noah would give away all the praise and accolades in a heartbeat in exchange for an NBA championship, however. He even asked fans to stop chanting MVP for him, claiming that Rose is the MVP even in injury. This team-first attitude in what Thibodeau said sets Noah apart in an often selfish league.

“He doesn’t care about his own statistics,” Thibodeau said. “He just cares about winning. To me, that’s what separates him from most.”

So while Noah’s game might be ungainly, NBA fans should enjoy their chance to watch the Bulls’ center’s distinctive combination of passionate aggression, precision passing, defensive prowess and all-consuming desire to win. Above all, Noah should act as a reminder that in basketball, sometimes ugly can be beautiful.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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