On the evolution of Joakim Noah, one of the best and most unique players in the NBA

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Noah turns 29 tomorrow. Let's celebrate him today.

First, Joakim Noah was a pest. When Florida unexpectedly made a national championship run in 2006 behind three future NBA lottery picks, Noah was the Gators' most visible player for reasons that went beyond the court. He taunted and he danced and he never stopped coming at you -- the combination of his histrionics, motor and unwieldy appearance made him one of the most reviled college basketball players of the last decade, right up there with Tyler Hansbrough and J.J. Redick.

Next, Noah was just an energy guy. When pitted against Spencer Hawes as two of the best center prospects in the 2007 draft, Hawes was considered the player with polish. Where Hawes had refined offensive skill, Noah was an unharnessed ball of activity. Noah would have to get by on his athleticism, it was thought, because his skill level left a lot to be desired.

Finally, Noah became a defensive anchor under Tom Thibodeau. He held the title of great defensive big man, capable of locking down the paint and calling the shots for one of the best units in the NBA. Still, people noticed his ugly jumpshot and lack of a pure low post game and saw something less than a two-way force.

Noah's evolution from where he began to where he is today has been a joy to watch. A reputation is a dangerous thing, and for years most of the country saw a player who had funny hair, wore a weird suit to the draft and shot free throws with the rotation of a knuckleball. Now we know better, know that Joakim Noah is one of the most gifted two-way big men in the NBA with a skillset as unique as any player in the league.

Don't be fooled by the spin on his jumper or the outdated beliefs about what a big man is supposed to be. Joakim Noah is a lethal offensive weapon, the best offensive player on the Bulls and type of center the NBA may not see again for a long time. He's a rim protector and a floor general, a leading rebounder and a point center. As Noah turns 29 years old tomorrow, it's time to appreciate him now.

On Wednesday, Noah paced the Bulls on both ends of the floor in a road win over the Toronto Raptors. He became the first center since Vlade Divac in 1996 to finish with at least 13 assists in a game, something that's only been achieved three times since 1985-86. He threw behind-the-back passes in transition, fed cutters out of the high post; he corralled rebounds, saw where his teammates were on the floor and hit them in stride for easy buckets. It was the type of thing you do not see very often, unless you watch Joakim Noah every night. For all of the angst and anxiety that's dominated the air around the Bulls the last three seasons, Noah's ascent has been the biggest silver lining.

Noah didn't develop into the best passing big man in the NBA until Derrick Rose went down, when the Bulls were forced out of necessity to run the offense through their center. It worked as well as they could have hoped, as Noah finished tied with Marc Gasol for the most assists per game by a center and improved his assist rate from 12.7 in 2012 to 17.6 in 2013. With Rose sidelined again this year, and without ball dominant players like Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson on the roster, Noah has taken another sizable step forward in his development as a playmaker.

What Noah is doing right now is basically unheard of. He's averaging 6.2 assists per game in February, which is the 21st best mark in the league. He's lapping the field in terms of assists by centers -- with an average of 4.5 assists per game, he's blowing No. 2 in that category (Hawes with 3.3 assists per game) out of the water. His 245 assists are the most on the Bulls and it's not particularly close -- D.J. Augustin is 36 behind and Kirk Hinrich trails by 43.

Noah's assists rate is now all the way up to 23.2, which is essentially unparalleled in the modern history of the league. Kevin Love gets a lot of attention for his highlight reel outlet passes, but even he isn't as good at setting teammates up for baskets according to the numbers. There's no one like Noah, really. Per Player Tracking available at NBA.com, Noah is No. 15 overall in total touches this season, ahead of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Mike Conley. In terms of passes per game, Noah is No. 14 overall at 61.9, leading all big men. Love is the only other frontcourt player in the top 25.

That Noah does all of this while captaining the league's No. 2 defense is what's really impressive. Oh, Noah is sixth in rebounding, too. He affects the game in more ways than just about any player who isn't considered a superstar.

Of course, we know better. We know Noah is one of the 25 best players in this league, and that's a conservative estimate. He's probably top 15. A two-way center is the hardest thing to find in the NBA and one of the toughest ideals to locate in all of sports, right up their with a franchise quarterback and power-hitting shortstop. That's the type of rare beast the Bulls have in Joakim Noah.

As Noah heads for the last few years of his prime, it's important not to take for granted where he's at and where's he's been. You don't just find another Joakim Noah. Rose was always targeted as the franchise savior, but Noah has occupied that role better than anyone could have hoped while Derrick has been out. He's the reason the defense is so good, and the reason the offense has a pulse at all. There's lots of good guards in this league, but there aren't many players like Noah.

As has been a trend throughout his entire career, Joakim Noah just keeps getting better. When it comes to building a championship roster, the Bulls have the hardest piece to find already in place.

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