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updated: 3/10/2014 7:24 PM

Noah's rise gives Bulls much to consider

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  • The Bulls' Joakim Noah has gone from a good NBA center to one of the best players in the game since the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland.

    The Bulls' Joakim Noah has gone from a good NBA center to one of the best players in the game since the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland.
    Associated Press


It was February 2011 when I caught up with Gregg Popovich after the Bulls had taken apart the Spurs at the UC.

The topic was Derrick Rose, who had announced to the world the previous summer that he was an MVP-quality player and worthy of conversation among the game's best.

His confidence brought mostly chuckles -- until Rose went out and did it.

"He's taken a monster leap since last year, and what's great about him is he seems to love the pressure," Popovich said. "That's what superstars do. They want to put the team on their back and they want the responsibility.

"That's easy to say, but not everyone wants that. Some guys are great when it's easy and then they kind of fade away into the background when the game gets tough."

Popovich had seen many a great player rise to that level in a short period of time and watched more than a few determine that the effort needed to stay there was daunting.

"You know, once you take that leap, you have to be that guy for 100 games a year, and (Rose) gets that," Popovich said. "He knows that the responsibility is now his to carry his team. Once you do that, there's no turning back or you let a lot of people down. It takes a special kind of character to be that player, and Derrick has that."

Fast forward to the present and consider the last two months for Joakim Noah.

Since the Bulls dealt Luol Deng, Noah has done more than just take over the team. He has taken over his position. He has been the best center in the league. He has become an NBA star.

Over the last few weeks, he has been a superstar. He has NBA types talking about him as an MVP candidate.

Rather than accept that the Bulls were cashing in their season, Noah became angry and found more in his game than he ever knew existed, and once his discovery became conscious thought, he has played better with every passing game.

Confidence and expectation is a powerful combination for an athlete, and Noah now possesses both. Some players crumble under that pressure, but Noah seems to love being counted on to carry his team.

He has gone from good NBA center, but hardly an NBA star, to one of the best players in the game over this last month of basketball.

Think about that.

Not often in sports does a player make a leap like that, and it absolutely takes a leap of faith on his part.

Noah understands now that he can be this good. That's not an easy concept to grasp or accept. It can be too much for some players to admit. It takes a willingness to be great and the desire to carry a team.

There are athletes who don't want it and definitely don't need it. They can make their millions and relax along the way, coasting on mediocre reputations and diminished expectations.

This is something special and not often seen around these parts. Before your very eyes, a player has risen from good to elite in a blink.

Can he maintain it? Can he stay healthy enough? Is it enough to lure someone like Carmelo Anthony?

More important, has Noah's play convinced Bulls management that Anthony is worth sacrificing average players the Bulls would have never previously considered dumping, in order to put Rose, Noah and Anthony together?

This is a fast-changing story and Noah is making it happen, just as Rose did three years ago at this time when he jumped to the front of the MVP race.

Noah hasn't quite done that -- finishing top three or four would be remarkable -- but what he's accomplished in a short period of time is as impressive as it was unexpected.

Said Popovich in 2011, "(Rose has) the character and demeanor of someone who clearly wants to be the best player on the floor every night. He knows now that the spotlight is on him every minute of every game, but he wants that. Not everyone wants that, but he does and that's why he's destined to be a superstar in this league."

That sounds an awful lot like the Joakim Noah of the last several weeks.

What remains to be seen is whether he can sustain it.

Much is riding on the outcome.

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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