Noah tries to take next step in his game

CHICAGO -- In the immediate aftermath of Joakim Noah's finest night as a professional, the night the big man scored a career-high 30 points, grabbed a career-high 23 rebounds, dished out six assists, blocked two shots and picked up two steals, Tom Thibodeau managed to both praise and challenge his center in a matter of moments.

Obviously, the veteran coach was pleased with the way Noah performed, but he knew Friday's performance against the Detroit Pistons was just the tip of the iceberg. Maybe Noah wasn't going to be able to go off for 30 and 23 every night, but Thibodeau knew the emotional big man was just starting to scratch the surface for his potential, especially on the offensive end.

"It's in him," Thibodeau said. "It's in him. I think he's got to continue to push himself. I think he could do a lot better than he's doing right now. He's worked at his game, but there's things (in his game) I still think that he could get to that he hasn't gotten to yet."

When asked to clarify what types of things he meant, Thibodeau responded with the same message he's given Noah since coming to Chicago over two and a half years ago.

"Just be consistent," Thibodeau said. "Come back the next night and do it again. Just keep growing, play hard every play. I felt he did all the things necessary and needed in that game. I thought we were flat, (he) gave us great energy, multiple effort, scored, play-maked, played great defense, was a leader. He has to do it every night, though."

As if on cue, an exhausted looking Noah went out Saturday night against the New York Knicks and scored 10 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and turned the ball over nine times -- the type of near triple double that no player or coach wants to see.

Noah didn't want to make excuses for his play after it was over, but the numbers told the story. During a four-games-in-five-nights stretch, Noah had played 171:35 out of a possible 192 minutes.

In a business built around numbers, it's easy to see why the 27-year-old is at a turning point in his career. He's producing the best stats of his professional life (14 points, 11 rebounds and four assists a game) in large part due to the amount of minutes he's been playing. Noah, who is one of the league leaders in minutes alongside teammate Luol Deng, plays almost 40 minutes a game.

That's why Deng has been staying on Noah all season in regards to getting his rest between games.

"You definitely feel it," Noah said of all the minutes. "It's no joke, man. You just have to be more conscious about of what's going on around you. You have to be more conscious about taking care of your body. That's all."

That was the key for Noah all along and he knew it. That's why he worked so hard with his personal trainer and close friend, Alex Perris, over the summer. That's why he spent copious amounts of time watching film with assistant coach Andy Greer and talking to Thibodeau. That's why he's on the precipice of taking the next step in his career. Sure, he has worked on various aspects of his game, but Noah is in the best shape of his life and he knows it.

"To be honest with you, I don't think that my game has changed that much," he said after Friday night's career performance. "I'm just more comfortable knowing where I can be effective, how to get my hooks off and I feel a lot more comfortable shooting the ball too. So I'm just more comfortable on the court and I work hard on my game."

>Noah has more confidence in his jumper than ever before because he spent hour after hour working on it in the gym. His defense is strong because he improved his quickness from side to side and he appears leaner than ever. But the biggest difference in his game is his mentality. He knew over the summer that Thibodeau was going to lean on him more than ever since the Bulls opted not to match the offer sheet for Omer Asik and so far he has been up to the challenge.

"He plays with that kind of energy, activity, he's much more talented than people give him credit for," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said. "He can handle, he can pass, he can score inside, he can drive guys, he has a quickness advantage a lot of times so I'm not surprised, he's very capable of having big nights."

His teammates have noticed the difference in Noah's game as well. It wasn't that he wasn't working hard in the past, it's just that his focus is as sharp as ever. With Asik gone and Derrick Rose out for the foreseeable future, Noah realized it was time for him to raise his play and that's exactly what he's done in over the first quarter of the season.

"A lot of people don't think he's good offensively but he is," Deng said. "It might not look smooth, but that's his game. His hook is different, his jump shot is different, his driving game is different for a big man. Always drives away from the basket, but gets those shots. It's just his game, he works hard and it's still a long season, but he's just got to keep it up."

That's the question that Noah knows he must answer. After dealing with various serious injuries over the past three seasons, Noah knows he must prove to people that he can play big minutes, produce and stay healthy over the course of an 82-game season. If he does, Deng believes his teammate will be on his way to the first All-Star Game of his career.

"I think he should (make it)," Deng said. "It's up to the coaches when they pick, but I think when you talk about us I'm sure a lot of teams when they scout us, they talk about Jo's energy and how huge that is for our team and keeping him off the boards. He's just got to keep it up, stay consistent."

There's that word again -- consistency.

It's the difference between the good players and the great ones. Will Noah be able to take the next step in his development? How bad does he want to prove he is one of the top players in the league? If the first two months of the season are any indication, the answer is: Pretty bad. Noah always wanted to prove he was amongst the elite players in the game, but in the next breath he would brag about being able to go to the beach during the All-Star break and relax for a few days. Now it appears he is ready to take the next step for himself and his team and all the responsibility that comes with it.

"Yeah, I want to be an All-Star," Noah said. "But I try not to think about it or play to be an All-Star. I try to play for my teammates and I try to affect winning. I think that when you start worrying about individual accolades, I think it takes away from team and this is a team game."

The beauty for Noah is that by leading his team the way he has this season, the individual accolades will follow on their own. All he has to do is play with the consistency that his teammates and coaches know he has within.