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Joakim Noah is Making History with Passing Skills

Joakim Noah has struggled throughout this season after having a career-best campaign last year. What was supposed to be a minor knee surgery has affected Noah on a game-to-game basis. Noah is shooting a career-low 44.6 percent from the field and 61.9 percent from the line this season, and his 9.8 points per 40 minutes is by far the lowest scoring rate of his career. If not for his passing, Noah would be among the worst offensive players in the league. But boy, he has been historically good at dishing the ball for a big man this season.

With Derrick Rose back and manning point-guard duties this season, Noah’s assist numbers naturally came down at first after handing out 5.4 dimes per game last year, as the big man averaged just 3.7 assists before the All-Star Game. However, Noah has transitioned back into that “Point Center” role with Rose recovering from another knee surgery, and the center has gone on a tear passing the ball.

Noah had an assist ratio of 44.6 in March, meaning nearly half of his possessions ended in an assist. That mark was tops in the league for anybody who played over 32 minutes in the month, per NBA.com. Noah’s 7.2 assists per game in March ranked 10th in the league, ahead of Rajon Rondo, Damian Lillard, Deron Williams, Kyle Lowry and Jeff Teague. His assist to turnover ratio in the month was 3.62, which ranked behind only Ty Lawson as the best mark in the league. (min. 90 assists in March) Noah’s assist total is even more impressive considering the way he gets the majority of his assists.

Noah isn’t a transition player who piles easy assists by running the break. He also isn’t an outlet passer like Kevin Love, where say Jimmy Butler streaks the floor for an open dunk. Noah also isn’t a drive and kick guy since most of the time he isn’t looking for his own shot. Noah is an expert at standing at either the elbow or the top of the key, scanning the floor, and delivering a pin-point pass. If he has the ball on offense, defenders can’t ball-watch for even a second or Noah will make them pay:


In this clip, Noah receives the ball at the top of the key, sees Chase Budinger cheating for a possible handoff, and then bounces a perfect backdoor bounce pass to Doug McDermott for an easy layup. (Yes, McDermott has scored this season.) Noah does this multiple times a game, with Butler being his favorite target. Butler is the player Noah has assisted most (53), which is no surprise since Butler is terrific at finishing cuts. Noah can sometimes get out of hand with these tricky passes, but more often than not he delivers. Noah is also a master at dribble handoffs:


On this play, Noah dribbles towards Rose and instantly sets a screen upon handing the ball off. Noah does an outstanding job of rubbing the defender on these plays, even if it requires sticking his butt out for extra separation. Kyrie Irving gets caught on the screen and Love doesn’t have enough time to switch onto Rose. Noah has assisted Rose 30 times this season, which is only less than Pau Gasol‘s 34 on the team. Noah’s favorite partner on these handoff exchanges is Mike Dunleavy, who Noah has assisted a team-leading 35 times, according to NBA.com. Dunleavy is an underrated cutter, and he also uses Noah’s screens to knock down jumpers. Noah’s handoffs often create something out of nothing, which is essential while Rose is still recovering.

Noah’s passing metrics this season are historical for a big man and even better than his numbers last year when he finished fourth in MVP voting. Noah’s career-high assist ratio of 32.6 ranks 13th in the league, tied with John Wall. The next closest center is Andrew Bogut at No. 34. Marc Gasol, who’s often pegged as the best passing center in the game, has an assist ratio nearly half that of Noah’s at 17.5. Noah also turns it over on just 13 percent of his possessions. (In comparison, Bogut’s turnover ratio is 16.4.) According to Basketball-Reference, there have been just 11 seasons in NBA history where a player 6-foot-11 or taller has assisted on at least 22.8 percent of his teammates’ field goals while on the floor. Noah has two of those seasons. (last year and this year)

Noah’s passing numbers will likely decline when and if Rose returns, but nonetheless, Noah is one of the best passing big men in NBA history.

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