Coulda Been Joakim
The prospect of Noah playing in Toronto still tantalizes fans.
by Pardeep Toor
Attracted to the goofy, wild hair, weak beard and childish energy, I’ve always been a fan of Joakim Noah. But watching him combine his athleticism and crazy — becoming a consistently productive NBA player — has not been easy.
He showed flashes last season while playing the best ball of his career in the first round against the Boston Celtics (steal… dunk… and one!). But this season, Noah has come back, morphed from a child into a man. No, seriously, for the first time in his career he has muscles and is using them to average 11.4/12.3/2.3 through eight games, plus his fifth double-double on the year last night against his former team, the Toronto Raptors.
Former team? Uh?
The bitter fan in me still imagines Noah as a Raptor. Still believes that had he came out after one of the most dynamic and exciting individual tournament runs of all-time. After his sophomore season at Florida, there’s reason to believe that Joakim Noah would have been the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Draft and the Raptors would have taken him instead of the mysterious Italian who showed up on draft boards mere months before the Draft (who also happens to be allergic to rebounds).
Noah was the NCAA Tournament star in 2006, averaging 16.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.8 blocks in six games, including a calculator-crunching 16 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 blocks and 3 steals in the first round against South Alabama and an absurd 21 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks against No. 1-ranked Villanova (Randy Foye/Kyle Lowry/Allan Ray-led team) in the Elite Eight.
Even before the Final Four, DraftExpress and ESPN’s Chad Ford had him pegged as a top-five overall pick. After the championship, Ford projected Noah as a top-two pick overall. There were questions about his ugly jump shot, wiry frame and absence of strength necessary to play in the frontcourt at the NBA level. But the numbers, quirky attitude and excitement for the game still had Noah projected as a solid NBA prospect, especially in the mediocre 2006 Draft class. The Raptors needed to acquire a big man to complement Chris Bosh, and Noah seemed like the best choice.
(Seriously, the 2006 Draft class was broke – Brandon Roy is a lone all-star, and even he had serious questions surrounding him about his health before the draft. Adam Morrison, Sheldon Williams, Randy Foye, Thabo Sefolosha have all been traded/cut at least once. Patrick O’Bryant and Mouhamed Sene were last seen on milk cartons and nothing intriguing can be said about JJ Redick. Joakim Noah could very well have went first overall that year.)
But Noah didn’t come out. He stayed at Florida with fellow Gators Al Horford and Corey Brewer to make one more title run. Philosophically, Noah staying at Florida for the sake of camaraderie and another championship was a beautiful story. Making a return was rare then, but it becomes even more remote today, as the one-and-dunzos impede the college landscape.
It was fitting that the veteran Florida team combated the freshman-infested Greg Oden/Mike Conley squad in 2007. Even though college players had been leaving early for years and, in many cases, not even attending college, the championship match was a perfect tipping point from the ‘old’ way to the ‘new’ way ahead. It was a clash of viewpoints on not only sport but education – those who attend school with a purpose in mind (make the NBA, get a job) and those attempting to immortalize the journey. The journey prevailed but Noah’s numbers declined, and so did his draft stock. He was picked ninth in the 2007 Draft, a far cry from first overall that he almost assuredly would have been taken a year prior, costing him approximately $2 million a year for the duration of his rookie contract.
The irony of the Noah’s decision to stay is that he is a perfect big man to play alongside Bosh and would solve a lot of the Raptors’ problems this season. Interior defense, penetrating guards and rebounding has been brutal in Toronto this year. Noah would fortify the paint as shot-blocking threat and grab more boards than any current Raptor big — his 12.3 rpg doubles 2006-Noah-substitute, Andrea Bargnani, who is averaging 6.4 rebounds a game so far. Not good.
Offensively, Noah doesn’t need the ball in his hands to produce, opening up more shots for the Raptors’ perimeter-heavy offense. Defensively, he can switch on pick and rolls and still disrupt smaller guards, guard the other team’s best post player – masking Bosh’s defensive inefficiencies. Bargnani doesn’t provide those ‘minor’ luxuries, preferring to hang out on the perimeter, adding more outside shooting on a primarily jump-shooting team.
Then there’s the issue of attitude – the swagger that Noah brings on the court, bumping his chest after his signature outstretched one hand slam and the impact that has on the team.
But now I’m just teasing Raptors’ fans and especially myself. Noah didn’t happen. It was close but the projected top pick in 2006 made the controversial decision to stay in college, a decision that may never be made again by a lottery bound baller but unfortunately was made the year the Raptors’ had the first pick overall and a player who has the skills to complete many of their weaknesses could have been available. For my own sanity, I have to stop pretending like Noah could have been a Raptor. As he gets better, it’s just going to get worse. Still, so close.