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Joakim Noah: Very Gifted

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Last week, USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt posted a combination examination of and interview with Bulls center Joakim Noah. In the interview Noah was reminded of something that he had said about himself:

“On a lazy Sunday afternoon, the Bulls’ All-Star center was reminded he once said, ‘I’m not a very skilled player. I’m not talented.’”

Noah wasn’t alone in that assessment. It was one of the recurring themes of coverage surrounding Noah when he was scouted for the draft and even during the early portion of his professional career. The conventional wisdom was that Noah was unskilled, not that talented, and raw. It was as staggeringly wrongheaded an assessment as it was near ubiquitous. In the moment, I thought it was insane that people didn’t see how good Noah was and what he could become. That’s not to toot my own horn too much, as I also thought Tyrus Thomas would be a star, and well … oh God, what is this water all over my cheeks now???

Noah was a force of nature at Florida in back-to-back national championship runs. Whirling and cutting and running the floor like a maniac. Noah also flashed incredible dribbling skills for a player of his size and a variety of moves to score the ball, along with surprising court vision. All of this is to say, the Joakim Noah of Florida was largely the same player that is now being considered a worthy name to place on MVP ballots. He was and is faster, more coordinated, and more energetic than any seven footer has any business being. So why was he picked ninth and why were many Bulls fans at the time surprised and dismayed that Spencer Hawes (yes, that Spencer Hawes) was not selected in that ninth spot ahead of Noah?

It comes down to the human need to compare real life, complicated human beings to perfect archetypes. Noah was the leader and MVP of those two back-to-back National Championship winning Florida teams and yet he was the third player drafted from that team, behind fellow big man Al Horford and small forward Corey Brewer. Brewer and Horford fit into much more traditional molds that fans and analysts alike could understand and envision translating to the next level. Brewer was the dominating wing defender who could score in transition and figured to have room to grow offensively– though he largely has not done. Meanwhile, Horford had a more traditional big man’s offensive game, with a superior back to the basket game and a much better mid-range jumper, complete with the body and strength to translate that classic style of play into results immediately at the next level. Noah, despite his boundless energy and grab-bag of useful skills, did not have the same ability to back strong defensive players down with ease and lacked consistency with his awkward, spinning globe jumpshot. He was unorthodox, and fans and draftniks alike, being human beings and as such always desirous of easily observable and recognizable patterns, struggled to categorize him. (Yes, he needed to fill out, but so do most big men entering the NBA. Most of them generally do, and so it was with Joakim.)

There has never been anyone quite like Joakim Noah, and because of that uniqueness, he was wrongly deemed to be a player lacking in skill or talent. That was never really true, Noah just lacked the skills for which everyone was immediately looking. As a result of that narrow focus on the specific skills everyone envisions in their prototypical NBA big man, Noah’s obvious virtues were widely overlooked, even, it seems, by him. Noah, and the rest of the basketball world, have thankfully woken up.

“I used to say I’m not gifted, but I take that back,” Noah told USA TODAY Sports. “I feel more and more gifted, and I’m feeling more and more confident in what I’m doing and I feel I can still get better.”

Despite his supposed limitations and lack of an ideal skill set, Noah has gone on to become the best pro from the dominating Florida team he led, as well as the second best player in the highly touted 2007 draft class, behind only world destroying juggernaut Kevin Durant. As we embark on another exciting NBA summer, with Noah putting his stamp on another postseason and the NBA draft hot on the heels of those playoffs, his success should serve as a reminder that when looking at the prospects preparing to enter the league the skills over which we gloss often are more important than those over which we obsess.

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