- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah is on schedule with his rehabilitation and expects to be back after the All-Star break. Noah is hopeful he will make his return on Feb. 23 against the Toronto Raptors.
"[I'm] very excited," he said before Saturday morning's shootaround. "Just working out. I've got some tape on my hand instead of a cast. I can shoot a little bit and get back on the court as soon as I can."
Noah, who hurt his thumb on Nov. 27 against the Sacramento Kings and had surgery to repair a torn ligament in the thumb on Dec. 16, had the remaining portion of the cast removed during halftime of the Bulls' game against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is happy with the way Noah has responded the rehab process.
"He's doing great," Thibodeau said. "Doing great. [Friday] he went through virtually the entire practice. He's pain-free; still working a little bit on his timing, which is to be expected. [He's] getting bumped a little bit. He's body on body now so that's really the next phase of his rehab. He's shooting the ball well from 15, 17 feet. Going through all his post stuff. So he's coming along very well."
While Noah hasn't been cleared for full-contact practices, he is doing more every day. On Friday, during a portion of post-practice workouts, Noah was doing post drills with Bulls forward Brian Scalabrine.
"He's hasn't done live scrimmaging yet," Thibodeau said. "But there's parts of practice that are somewhat, more half-court, where you're structuring body on body, pick and roll defense, different defensive coverages and things like that. So he's been cleared to do that, but he hasn't been cleared yet to do the scrimmaging part, which will probably be the next step for him. Based on what [athletic trainer] Fred [Tedeschi] has laid out is a plan for progression. So he cleared him for some contact and then the next phase will be the total live contact."
Noah is just happy to be able to contribute once again.
"It's been good," he said of being able to practice. "Just getting used to contact again. Obviously, I'm still not where I want to be, but I'm working hard at it every day."
Thibodeau has been impressed with the way his young center has tried to stay in shape over the last two months.
"The thing that he's done well is he's been very engaged," Thibodeau said. "He's done a lot of conditioning. He's come early to stay with the offense and sort of walk through things there so he's been working on that and then he's done a lot of post work with his left hand and things of that nature. So he's done a good job with that, and then the past few weeks he's done a little bit more. I think the big thing, once he starts playing, will be, how long will he be able to sustain a high level of play without [being gassed]. I think that will come quickly. What he has done is he's done a great job with his conditioning, so he's done as much as you could possibly do."
Noah knows it's going to take a little more time for him to feel like he's back, but he is looking forward to the challenge.
"It's not great," he said of his conditioning. "But I'm working really hard every day. So I think I'll be ready when I get back on the court."
As for how well he'll be able to play, Noah isn't ready to make any proclamations.
"We'll see," he said. "I'm not sure. I've never been out that long but I'm working as hard as I can and when I'm out there I'll probably 150 percent and see where it goes."
Nick Friedell covers the Bulls for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann