Joakim Noah may not be the best player in the NBA, but few trump him in effort.
By CHRIS TOMASSONFS Florida
Is there an NBA player Charles Barkley never criticizes?
He’s taken on LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard. He’s called out many other all-stars.
But, wait, there is a guy the Hall of Famer and TNT analyst doesn’t take shots at. In fact, Barkley goes so far as to call him his favorite player.
That would be
Joakim Noah, the Chicago Bulls center with the weird-looking shot but wonderful work ethic.
“That means a lot,’’ Noah said about being No. 1 on Barkley’s list. “Chuck was one of my favorite players growing up. He’s always somebody who speaks his mind. And it’s humbling.’’
For basketball purists, it’s hard not to like the former University of Florida star. Noah is one guy who really seems to mean it when he says winning is the only stat he cares about.
“I can see why,’’ Miami Heat forward Shane Battier said of Noah being Barkley’s favorite player. “He plays with heart. He gives it his maximal effort and so I can understand why.’’
Trying to match Noah’s energy was a key concern for the Heat entering their ongoing Eastern Conference semifinal. It didn’t go too well in Game 1 as Noah had 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block while dominating Miami center Chris Bosh in a surprising 93-86 win.
It turned out much better for the Heat in Game 2. Noah, who had 12 points and six rebounds, didn’t fill up the box score and the Bulls were crushed 115-78. Noah ran his mouth and was ejected early in the fourth quarter after picking up a second technical.
But Noah will be back. In fact, he’s already given the Bulls much more during these playoffs than expected after having missed 12 of the final 15 regular-season games due to a case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
“The night before the Brooklyn series, he said he didn’t think he was going to be able to play,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of the first round.
Noah did play. And he’s typified the spirit of the undermanned Bulls, who were able to upset the Nets 4-3 and are 1-1 with Miami despite not having injured star Derrick Rose (knee) and being without Kirk Hinrich (calf) the past five games and Luol Deng (illness) the last four.
Noah saved his best for Game 7 at Brooklyn, totaling 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in 41 minutes in a 99-93 win. By the latter part of the series, regular treatments had his foot feeling much better.
“I’ve never been so grateful and I’m not taking these moments for granted,’’ Noah said of now having greatly improved. “When you really feel like everything you work for can be taken away from you from injury, to be able to play now I’m just so thankful to be in this situation because I know what it feels like to go though a lot of misery.’’
If Noah ever has taken anything for granted, it’s unclear when. He burst onto the scene with his gritty play as the Gators won NCAA titles when he was a sophomore in 2006 and junior in 2007.
Noah turned down being a very NBA high draft pick in 2006 to play another year in college, a rarity in this era. Joining him in returning to Florida for the second championship were big man Al Horford and guard Corey Brewer, and all three would be lottery picks in 2007.
“When we see each other, there’s always much respect, much love,’’ said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who got out of Florida two years before Noah arrived in 2004 but was able to serve as a mentor to Noah during his college years. “After they won their first national championship, I had a conversation about whether he wanted to stay in school or come out. ... (Haslem told Noah), ‘Stay in school. You don’t get those years back.’’’
Noah said Haslem’s advice played a role in his decision to stay.
“Haslem’s like the big brother of UF basketball,’’ Noah said. “He’s a warrior. ... He always took care of us and always gave us really good advice. He told me playing at the University of Florida was the best time of his life. Don’t let anybody rush you into making your decision and I took it to heart and I came back.’’
Since Noah entered the league as the No. 9 pick by the Bulls in 2007, Noah and Haslem have greeted each other regularly along the NBA road. But they’re avoiding small talk now due to the importance of this playoff series and pretty much only meet up when they bang into each other on the court.
Both Noah and the undrafted, 6-foot-8 Haslem are known for their work ethic. But Noah combines that with being 6-11 and having coordination he no doubt got from his father, former French tennis champion Yannick Noah.
“His effort level is a talent,’’ Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of Noah. “Most NBA players don’t have that.’’
Told what Spoelstra said, Noah didn’t appear impressed. He seemed to wonder why any player wouldn’t always give maximum effort.
“I just go out and win the game,’’ Noah said. “That’s the only thing that matters to me. That’s what makes me happy and that’s what makes (the Bulls) happy as well.’’
Chicago guard Richard Hamilton offered up why the team is so happy with Noah.
“It comes from within,’’ Hamilton said. “Not everybody can do what he does. Everybody doesn’t want to do what he does.’’
That’s doing the dirty work while not caring much about scoring. But those in the know realize it translates into making Noah one of the league's better players.
Noah was named an NBA all-star last February for the first time. It came during a season in which he averaged career highs in points (11.9), rebounds (11.1), assists (4.0), blocks (2.14) and steals (1.18) while also excelling in defensive areas that don’t show up in the box score.
“I hope he continues to improve until the last year he plays in the league,’’ Thibodeau said. “I want him to have that approach. I want him to remain hungry. I think there is a lot of room (for continued improvement) and that being said he’s an all-star now. And I think if he keeps working on it, I can see him being a defensive player of the year.’’
Noah has plenty of incentive. No doubt he’d like to remain a rare NBA player Barkley never criticizes.