Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Just three non-guards in the NBA lead their team in assists, and two are LeBron James and Kevin Durant, only the two best players in the league. The other is a center.
Losing a star point guard forces other players to step up their passing, and that's what Joakim Noah has done for the Chicago Bulls after Derrick Rose went down with yet another injury.
Over his last six games, Noah has handed out double-digit assists three times, including a career-high 13 on Feb. 19 at Toronto, to complete his transition into a 6-foot-11, frizzy-haired Chris Paul.
Prior to Noah, the last center who had picked up 10 or more assists in a game three times in one SEASON was Brad Miller with the Sacramento Kings in 2005-06, according to the Chicago Tribune. Miller mentored Noah when he was with Chicago from 2008-10. Noah was also the first center with 13 assists in a game since Vlade Divac in 1996.
With 238 assists this season, he has 59 more assists than any other center and 12 more than any power forward.
Noah's role as facilitator hasn't prevented him from doing what he does best: cleaning the glass. He has vacuumed up at least 10 rebounds in 24 of the last 26 games while averaging 12.9 boards per game in that span.
A preseason groin injury limited Noah early in the regular season and he averaged just 8.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 0.8 blocks over his first 15 games, but he has turned in 13.1 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.1 steals over his last 37.
Noah ranks 10th in the NBA with 27 double-doubles and even had a triple-double on Feb. 11 with 19 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists. LeBron doesn't even have one of those this season.
On just eight of his combined 19 made field goals and assists during his triple-double did he put the ball on the floor. That's just how Noah plays. When he gets the ball it doesn't stay with him for long. Most of the time he either looks to pass it to an open teammate, rises up immediately for an unorthodox two-handed jumper or dunks it.
When he does dribble it, he does it so forcefully that he appears to be trying to slam the ball through the floor, but then he's capable of breaking off a behind-the-back pass from the free-throw line to a teammate sprinting from the corner. His game is both beautiful and ugly at the same time, and it's always rambunctious.
Garnering praise from Chicago's hard-nosed coach Tom Thibodeau isn't easy, but Thibs acknowledged Noah's improvements following his 13-assist game.
"Joakim has gone to a completely different level," he said.
As we saw at the 2007 NBA Draft when he sported a bowtie and flashed both a peace sign and a frighteningly large grin while shaking hands with David Stern, Noah was already a pretty out-there guy.
I shudder to think what level he's on now, although we may have caught a glimpse of it on Feb. 3 when he went nuts on the court and cursed out all three referees individually.