Joakim Noah out to prove himself after rough first season with Knicks

Joakim Noah of the Knicks speaks during the team's media day on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. / James Escher

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Players entering their 11th season aren’t usually excited about meaningless preseason games, but Joakim Noah was.

Noah viewed Friday night’s game against the Wizards as another step toward redeeming himself and showing he still can be an effective player.

“It’s been a long time away from the game,” Noah said after Friday’s morning shootaround. “I’m still a work in progress. I’m just excited to get back on the court.

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“I’m dealing with a lot of adversity right now. It’s just where the cards fell. It’s like being a rookie all over again. I got to prove myself, I got to prove myself every day. It’s my challenge. It’s the challenge that I put myself in. I just got to keep working every day.”

Noah, who last played on Feb. 4, has a long hill to climb. The former two-time All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year with the Bulls had knee surgery in February and shoulder surgery in April. In March, he was suspended 20 games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy.

All of this was part of a forgettable first season with the Knicks. After being signed to a four-year, $72-million contract, Noah appeared in only 46 games, averaging 5.0 points and 8.8 rebounds. During the last three seasons, he has played in only 142 of a possible 246 games.

Noah, 33, currently is third or fourth on a center depth chart that features Willy Hernangomez, Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn. Noah realizes that his role will be coming off the bench. He also knows that he might not be in the regular rotation unless he’s able to make an impact defensively, as the Knicks hoped he would last season.

“Yeah, that’s probably what it’s going to be,” Noah said about being a reserve. “Right now we have a lot of very talented players at my position, so that’s just the reality. Be as supportive as possible, and when my number is called, just making an impact.”

Noah will start the season on the suspended list. He still has to serve 12 games, so the earliest he can play is Nov. 13 against Cleveland, if he’s healthy. Noah said it’s been difficult coming to grips with that.

“This is not easy at all,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of time to mentally prepare myself for this. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. My whole mindset is just getting better each day. Just being able to play in this league, I don’t want to take anything for granted. I just want to get better every day and help this team in any way I can.”

Noah’s situation puts coach Jeff Hornacek in a tough spot as he tries to figure out rotations and combinations. Plus the Knicks’ plan is to play faster and develop their young players. Noah appears to be a square peg trying to be put in a round hole.

Hornacek, however, has been impressed by how active and effective Noah has been during camp. He was surprised how Noah has looked after the surgeries, his fifth and sixth of his career. Noah wasn’t, though.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I’m not surprised. I’m battling my injuries. I’m battling through some adversity. But at the same time, every time I step on the court, it’s a blessing.”

That’s Noah’s message to the young players, especially after his suspension. He said he wanted to be an example for younger guys and that the suspension hurt that, so he’s trying to be an example for them in a different way.

“If we’re in camp or out here and I hear a young guy say, ‘I’m tired,’ I kind of just look at him like, ‘I had six surgeries,’ ” Noah said. “ ‘You’re tired, but we’re out here waking up early, getting treatment just to be able to get to shootaround.’

“It’s a different mentality because it was a blessing to even do the whole training camp every day. I feel like I’m in a good place and I just want them to see how I deal with my adversity, and I think that’s showing the young guys stuff.”