Decided to do something different here and highlight the rookie campaigns of two players SLAM and its readers have come to know for a couple of years now. Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls and Thaddeus Young of the Philadelphia 76ers were picked 9th and 12th respectively in the 2007 draft and entered the league charged to showcase the natural God given talents they were blessed with.
Last night, these two rookies and their teams did the sweet compete as the NBA enters into its final stretch. It’s crazy to think the regular season is almost done. The Sixers continued to rolll and defeated the Bulls 121-99 behind Andre Miller (9 pts., 18 assists and 8 rebounds), Andre Iguodala (21 pts., 9 assists), Lou Williams (23 points) and Young who banged in 20. The Bulls were led by Thabo Sefalosha (20 points), Kirk Hinrich (18points), Andres Nocioni (16 points) and Noah who contributed a respectable 10 points and 5 rips.
I’d met Joakim at Chris Webber’s Bada Bling last July and was instantly impressed by his passionate personality and unbridled smile. His Florida team was coming off back to back championships so of course it was all good. I could sense he was going to be alright in this league as long as he didn’t let his emotions get the best of him. He’s straight up honest and it’s refreshing to witness a professional athlete operating with such candor. Rightfully so with pros, the armor of Colossus is employed and shields most from the obtrusive ways of some of my peers. Hopefully Joakim will let us in just a little bit longer before the sharks come. Dude has this remarkable passion…
Michael Tillery: You had a huge Florida fan contingent here tonight that you bought tickets for. The last time you were here was the game you were suspended for “detrimental conduct to the team.” Was it important to you to redeem yourself after having that setback?
Joakim Noah: I know I’ll always get love over there. I feel a little disappointed that I let them down, by getting suspended after all those people came to see me play. I thought it was the right thing to do by getting them some tickets.
Before the game, I asked Chris Byrne and Eliza Van Dusen–two Florida fans from Philly–what it meant that Joakim redeemed himself and bought their tickets.
Chris Byrne: We’re part of the Philadelphia Gator Club. We came out here last time he was here and he got benched. Being the good guy that he is…being the Gator that he is…he brought tickets for all of us who showed up last time.
MT: Eliza what are your thoughts on Joakim’s rookie season?
Eliza Van Dusen: I have absolutely nothing to say (we laugh). This is my first basketball game but I’m excited.
CB: She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know. Hopefully it will get better. They need to get him on the court more. As far as the tickets, this should show the rest of the NBA how much of a good guy he really is.
MT: Thanks guys.
MT: Joakim, what did you learn from that whole experience? Not tonight, but…
JN: You mean the night I got in trouble?
JN: Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut. It was a learning experience and it cost me a lot of money. People don’t really know the whole situation. It’s over with now, but I don’t really feel like I was really in the wrong. I was wrong by the way I reacted. Looking back, it’s so stupid. I let my teammates down. I let myself down.
MT: Was a lot of your early frustration because you came from such a winning program and things weren’t going quite as planned coming into the league?
JN: Losing is frustrating. Losing is frustrating for everybody. You can see that yourself Mike. Every single time you go into the losing locker room.
MT: What’s the biggest difference between being drafted and now? Have you aged in this short period of time?
JN: I feel like I’ve grown up a lot. We travel all the time. Always on the road. Coach (Skiles) got fired. People traded. A lot of things going on.
MT: Did you anticipate the professional reality or is it like a total clean slate for you coming in?
JN: It was a clean slate. It’s just learning from your playing time.
MT: So was more than what you expected to be?
JN: In certain ways, yeah. The NBA is so much more than what the fans see, but I feel the way to look at it is that we are doing something we love to do and everytime you step on the court, you have to put all the other things aside.
MT: Tennis is obviously a different sport, but what has your dad (Yannick Noah, best know for winning the French Open in 1983) taught you from a professional stand point?
JN: I learned a lot from him growing up. I learned about work ethic. He made a lot of sacrifices. He’s someone I’m glad I can talk to and relate now that I’m a professional athlete as well.
MT: Comment on professional and opposed to collegiate competition and camraderie in the locker room.
JN: Well now I’m playing against the best athletes in the world and in college I was playing twice a week. Getting used to the travel is a different experience. As far as the people in the locker room. We are all of different ages. There’s just a lot of differences because of how we all arrived here at this time in our lives.
MT: Still talk to your college coach and teammates as much? What did you think about Donovan locking the team out of the practice facility?
JN: Yeah I talk to them all the time. Donovan is going to do the right thing regardless.
This interview was hard on Joakim. I applaud him for doing this. You could truly see the losing is wearing on him. It’s part of their job, but that pros have to deal with the media win or lossis something. Especiallysomeone like me who likes to dig in to give you the reader a face behind the talent. He hung in their though.
MT: I just wanted to document your rookie season because you deserve it. When you see someone like Webb retire, does it give you an appreciation of the moment? Do you see yourself in his shoes one day?
JN: I definitely appreciate the moment. It’s something Coach Donovan taught us. Never look ahead. Take care of what’s now. Enjoy your life. I enjoyed my college years. I didn’t want to look ahead to the NBA and because of it I had a great time. Up to now, it was the best time of my life. I’m happy we never looked back at the first National Championship. Now I have to move forward and do what I have to do to have success here as well.
MT: What’s going to be the biggest difference in your offseason preparation from the summer before you were drafted?
JN: I’m definitely going to get stronger. Having a year under my belt and knowing what’s out there, knowing what I have to do to become a better player. I’m definitely going to do a lot of work. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m not quite sure exactly what I’m going to do personally yet, but I’m going to work hard with the team as well.
Thaddeus Young is turning a lot of heads lately. It’s not just him getting out on the break and bangin’ it on somebody’s center; he’s almost like a left handed Cedric Ceballos around the rim and along the baseline. He sneaks in, takes the pass and before you know he’s scoring on a reverse or shooting a baby jumper above the dots. He’s much different than the kid coming out of high school I spoke to after he and Kevin Durant won individual team MVP honors at the Jordan Classic. His confidence has soared and it’s paying off in Sixers wins–18-5 the last 23. He has a shot to become a special player and under the strict pop like guidance of Maurice Cheeks and his staff, trust it will happen.
MT: Thaddeus, you are ballin’. What’s going on? You enjoying your step into the league?
Thaddeus Young: It’s been good so far. I’ve been relying on my teammates and we are beginning to have a really good season.
MT: What are you learning from your squad going through such a great stretch and moving up the Eastern Conference playoff ladder?
TY: It’s a big deal. Coach was telling us that we are not in it. We still have a chance to lose some games and be knocked out. Right now, we’re in the race, so we’re just focused on winning games.
MT: Your confidence from the beginning of the season compared to now is just ridiculous. What happened? Was it just about getting the playing time?
TY: Yeah, I had to get my feet wet. As the playing time came, I began to get more comfortable to play my game. I was known as an offensive player coming in, but now I’m doing whatever I have to do in terms of playing defense and getting out in transition and scoring when I have the opportunity.
MT: Where did you get the knack to be so nice around the basket?
TY: In high school I played the 4 and in earlier years the 1 and 2. Once I grew and began to be quick on my feet, getting lose balls and scoring around the rim became easier.
MT: What made you first pick up a basketball?
TY: My dad (Felton Young, who played three years with the San Diego Clippers). He used to tell me about playing in the league and this and that and I would tell him I was going to be better than him. He gave me the knowledge and would tell me that once I got to tenth grade I exceeded his game. It all came from listening to him and the older guys I played against.
MT: To see this team gel is quite honestly, amazing. Are you becoming close off the court as well?
TY: We are like brothers and the coaches are like fathers. We are bonding on and off the court. We hang out a lot. It’s all one big family right now.
MT: Obviously it’s important for you to make the playoffs as a rookie, what have some of the players described from their experiences?
TY: I want to feel the atmosphere. Guys here have been to the playoffs and played in the NBA Finals (Kevin Ollie).
MT: Who was that player you modeled your game after?
TY: I grew up watching a lot of tape of players and took from this guy or that guy to get to where I am now. I would say Lamar Odom and Tayshaun Prince.
MT: The question was raised in Coach Cheeks’ press conference of what your natural position is. Your skill set probably allows you to play three positions. What do you think?
TY: I probably would say small forward. I’m a versatile player, so it really doesn’t matter. Coach was telling me that I’m not going to be playing the 4 all my life and I was like “I know that”. I’m doing what the team needs me to do. I’m going to go out there and give it my hardest and just try to contain all those big guys.
MT: Is that something you picked up on early on playing with your dad?
TY: What, guarding 4′s?
TY: Well my dad is 6’11” so that is hard enough. Nah it wasn’t nothing like that. It was just having a passion and desire for the game. Long as you do that, good things are going to happen.
MT: Well you had a nice game today. I gotta come up with some kind of nickname for you because of your skills around the rim…
TY: (Laughs) Ask him my nickname.
MT: What’s his nickname, bruh?
Willie Green: Who, Thad? Baby Legs
MT: Baby Legs? (Laughing as I say Wow) Well It’s apropos. Especially this time of year with everyone worn out.
Philly sporswriter Tom Moore then asks: “Is that a compliment?”, and we all laugh.
TY: I don’t like it. (smiling shaking his head)
MT: Well what do you think your name should be?
TY: They said I can’t choose.
MT: There it is…
Tom Moore: I guess you get to pick when you are 21.
MT: You have a long way to go with that.
TY: Man, ya’ll are trippin’.
MT: Are you happy where you are right now?
TY: We’re developing into one of the best teams in the league–one of them. We are just going out there and having fun playing basketball.
MT: What I meant to ask is, is this where you saw yourself?
TY: Everybody is asking me that question. At first I was told that I wasn’t going to play some games and I was going to play some games. That didn’t sit well with me. I want to play every game, so I’m going to work as hard as I could to play in every game. That’s what I did. It’s what I kept focusing on was the task at hand–playing defense. I didn’t play a lick of defense in high school and college, so I had to focus in on that.
MT: You better not let coach hear you say that.
TY: He probably knows I wasn’t a defensive player. He probably watching a lot of scouting tapes on me. My main job in high school and college was to score the ball. Now I’m a role player and I’m willing to accept that job.