AUBURN HILLS, Michigan (Reuters) - Joakim Noah has had to adjust to many things during a tumultuous NBA rookie season but the most difficult has been losing.
A standout on a successful University of Florida team, the pony-tailed Frenchman had almost forgotten how to lose as the Gators ran up a 68-11 record on their way to back-to-back NCAA titles.
As the victories piled up so did the accolades with Noah earning All-American honors and being voted the outstanding player of the 2006 Final Four tournament, prompting the Chicago Bulls to use their first pick (ninth overall) in last year’s draft on the charismatic centre.
This season, though, neither the Bulls nor Noah have lived up to expectations.
A pre-season tip to battle for the Eastern conference title, the Bulls (26-38) have lost more than they have won while Noah, until recently, received more attention for his temper tantrums than for his talent.
In January, the fiery power forward was suspended for two games following a confrontation with assistant coach Ron Adams and a few days later he challenged veteran Ben Wallace after a loss.
While Noah apparently had no shortage of things to say to coaches and team mates, he soon had no comment for the media, briefly boycotting reporters over what he believed was his unfair portrayal as a malcontent.
“It’s tough,” Noah, 23, told Reuters after a recent loss to the Detroit Pistons. “Talent-wise we have enough in this room to make a run and get to the playoffs but we’re just letting it slip away.”
Winning is engraved in Noah’s family genes.
His father, 1983 French Open champion Yannick Noah, is a sporting icon in France while his mother Cecilia also knows something about winning crowns, having taken the Miss Sweden title in 1978.
Given his champion’s pedigree and inherited competitiveness, Noah’s frustration is understandable says Milwaukee Bucks former number one pick Andrew Bogut.
”The chemistry they had at Florida was different,“ explained Bogut, the top selection in the 2005 NBA draft. ”At Florida, they were winning championships.
”The college environment is much more family oriented. The team is together 24/7; you’re going out with the guys, eating with the guys.
”In the NBA, you’re alone most of the time. You have your own hotel room, you don’t have a room mate.
“You don’t really go out much with guys, unless you want to go party. I think that’s probably his biggest adjustment.”
A recent promotion to the starting lineup has helped to speed Noah’s learning curve and brought some maturity to the free-spirited Frenchman’s game.
As his minutes have increased so have his numbers, the six-foot-11-inch (2.11-metre) centre averaging 8.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in his first six starts after Wallace was traded.
The highlight of his season so far, however, was a 20-rebound, 13-point performance in a win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 6.
”He plays with a lot of energy every night, a lot of enthusiasm,“ said Bulls coach Jim Boylan. ”He’s getting better, starting to learn the game.
”You never quite know exactly where the guy is going to go but as I watched him during the season I thought if we could get him a lot of consistent minutes he would figure out how to play in this league. He has, but not every night.
“He’s struggled some nights but other nights he’s played very well so we’re happy about the way he’s going.”
While pleased to have earned the starting assignment, Noah is less concerned about his own performance than his team’s as the Bulls continue their fight for a playoff spot.
”There’s a lot more coming at me because I‘m on the court more but I wouldn’t have it any other way,“ said Noah. ”I’d rather be on the court than on the bench.
”It’s definitely easier mentally, you know you’re starting, but at the same time it’s not about who’s starting and who’s not starting, it’s about winning the ball games at the end of the night. Getting back on that bus and being happy.
“We expect a certain level of intensity. It’s about taking care of business.”
Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg, Editing by Clare Fallon