By Sean McAlevey
SECTION 310, ROW 14, SEAT 6, LOONEY TOON ARENA, Toon Land — For many years, at least as far back as the 1980s, certain star forwards have been tasked with running their team’s offense from the point. The position has been aptly titled the “point forward,” since such players share the attributes of both a point guard and forward. From Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen to LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the point forward had without a doubt been the most captivating position of the last three decades… Until Joakim Noah happened on Sunday.
The high-energy Chicago Bulls center has my vote for the most fascinating player of 2014, but let’s put aside his rasta hair bun and gyrocopter jump shot for a moment. Thanks to the former University of Florida star’s unique style of play and absurd 14-assist performance against the Knicks on Sunday, a hybrid position – the “point center” – was spawned. Think about that concept for a minute. This is the synthesis of the game’s two most disparate positions. This is speed and agility plus height and strength. This is Allen Iverson meets Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash meets Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul meets Dwight Howard. It doesn’t get much weirder – or cooler – than that.
Noah is a center first, point center second. For the first five years of his career, the 6’11” French national roamed the paint for Chicago and averaged nearly 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. As a Gator, Noah won back-to-back national championships in ’06 and ’07, taking home All-America honors as a center in the process. And if Derrick Rose’s knees weren’t sculpted from the leftover glue, water, and scrap pages of Reader’s Digest mags from a third-grader’s summer camp project, Noah would still be doing the same. But since we do live in this sick world of paper mache knees, Noah has taken it upon himself to run the Bulls’ offense in his teammate’s wake. Keep in mind, though, he’s not exactly Eurostepping his way through the lane or snapping ankles with stutter crossovers; we’re still talking about Joakim Noah. He’s still a big man.
But insofar as he’s a big man by trade, he’s a point guard at heart. Noah uses his height and length to sling passes across the court and set up high percentage looks for backdoor cutters; when he’s feeling the offense stagnate, he’ll even bring the ball up in transition. He uses his size and court awareness to relentlessly attack the paint, and when the defense over-compensates and tightens up around the rim, he casually lasers kick-out passes to the outside option.
In the two seasons Rose has been sidelined, Noah has averaged 4.0 and 4.7 assists per game. That’s immensely impressive considering his previous career best was 2.5, which was already top notch for a center. He upped the ante with 14 assists against the Knicks, the most by a center in the last 35 years. And in February, he cracked the 10-assist mark in three games – 13, 11, and 11. He ranks first overall among centers in assists, and third overall among forwards, trailing only LeBron James (6.4) and Kevin Durant (5.5). Applied retroactively to the last eight seasons, 4.7 assists never ranks lower than fourth in the league for forwards and centers.
I’d be impressed with a five-assist season from Noah this year. Saying you’re the best at a niche skill for your position is great and all, but passing a threshold number like five changes the game: you’re half way to the mecca of ten assists. Five assists also guarantees a yearly top-40 ranking among all players – something that’s worthy of starting point guard consideration in and of itself. Then you throw 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks into the mix and suddenly you’re left with a former collegiate All-American, two time All-Star center capable of running your team’s half-court offense from the point to the low post.
The difference between what Noah’s doing and what others have done previously, such as 6’8″ point guard Magic Johnson playing center for the Lakers in the wake of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s absence, is that Noah has transitioned from a big man to a point center, as opposed to the other way around. It’s a lot easier for a point guard with an abnormal height advantage to help out in the front court than it is for a center with handles to help out in the back court.
After Noah, Spencer Hawes is the next most prominent current point center. The 7’0″ Hawes, who recently made headlines a couple weeks back when he was traded from Philly to Cleveland, has made a name from himself with impressive high-post passing (3.2 assists/gm.) and efficient outside shooting (41.6% from three). Teams love players like Hawes, who space the offense and swap inside-out with the bigger guards and forwards, disorienting the defense and creating enviable mismatches.
It’s only a matter of time before the league adjusts to accommodate more point center-esque players. Noah, Hawes, and the other few point centers lingering in the wings will have to settle, for now, with being the most fascinating emerging players of the next generation.