Experiences made Noah tougher in the long run

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Joakim Noah has been the face of college basketball the past two seasons.

I know you're going to say that Kevin Durant or Greg Oden dwarfs Noah in importance or relevance. And, obviously, they were the two most dominant players at various points this past season. And they will be the two can't-miss franchise players in the NBA draft Thursday night.

Still, if you think about who has been the lightning rod in college hoops the past two seasons, it's not even close. It's Noah.

And the one thing that Noah has that Oden and Durant don't have is a ring -- make that two rings, for winning back-to-back national titles with Florida.

I'll be honest: I'll miss Noah's candor, his thoughtful answers and his provocative nature. For a young man who is just a junior in college, Noah has quite a perspective on the world. I'm willing to bet that few college students, let alone athletes, display a poster featuring the famous photo of one man standing in front of four tanks in the middle of a road in Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the June 3, 1989 protests.

But the biggest difference for Noah, and he doesn't mind saying this, is that he comes into the NBA with more of an edge than most.

Who can forget Noah's diving out of bounds at Kentucky and swatting pompoms away from his face. Or grabbing the ball from Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings on an end line and the two of them playing a game of hot potato with the ball before a referee steps in. Or inciting the opposing crowds by flicking his right finger on his left hand after scoring a bucket and getting fouled. All of the attention, mostly negative on the road, has hardened him.

"It's going to make me a better player in the long run," said Noah after his workout with the Boston Celtics a few weeks ago as we played pool in the team's practice facility. "There were times this year that were really hard, but I feel like these experiences are only going to make me tougher. Some guys who are in the NBA probably even haven't had to deal with it the way I had to deal with it, in terms of expectations and just all the attention. I feel like in my three years, I'm a player who's probably experienced the most. Just from my freshman year not playing to my sophomore year getting all this attention to everything that happened my junior year just being underneath a microscope. And just everybody having something to say, judging you. I feel like I learned a lot about people. I learned a lot about myself."

"I love the game, and that's what I realized," Noah said. "I realized that sometimes you have to say no to some people because people will take all your time. And when you're not [in] demand, you don't have to worry about that kind of stuff. My father would always tell me about it; coach Donovan always tells me about it. But it's different when you're going through it.

"I feel like I went through that, and not everybody has gone through that yet, so I feel like that's just definitely part of my experience and something that I learned in college. And I think that some people will learn it very soon. Some people will experience it in 10 years. I got to experience that in college already, so it's only going to help me in the long run."

And that's why it was sweeter for Noah to win the title again.

"It was so satisfying and it was so worth it, and that's why I have no regrets," he said. "We came back to school to achieve a goal and we did it, we won the championship again. I have memories that I'll never forget at the University of Florida and ... it was so much fun. My three years over there were a blast. I think I might be the college player who had the most fun ever."

But many assumed Noah might leave that fun a year earlier. Right after he won the 2006 Most Outstanding Player Award at the Final Four, Noah was talked about as being the No. 1 pick in the draft.

But his decision was relatively easy.

"All the hype happened so late, and when you're in the [NCAA] Tournament, you're not thinking about the NBA," Noah said. "You're focusing on the moment like coach [Billy Donovan] always told us. So I wasn't really thinking about the NBA or what was going to happen. And I knew that Al [Horford] and Corey [Brewer] wanted to come back. When I knew those guys wanted to come back, it wasn't even close. I mean, I know that if I would have ended up testing the waters, I would have left."

I cut him off right then and say, "Why do you say that?"

"Because once you get a taste of it, you're not going back to school," Noah said. "I mean, I don't see what the point is, especially when you're projected that high. But I feel like I really made the right decision, and I'm just so happy right now to just say that we went back to school to win another national championship. We did it."

But because he decided to go back, and Oden and Durant opted to leave college after their freshman seasons, Noah immediately dropped down to No. 3 at best with the possibility of going as low as No. 10 or 11.

To say the draft experience is different for Noah is an understatement. Oden and Durant worked out for only the top two teams, Portland and Seattle. Noah and others spent that time flying all over the country.

"I feel like, in this draft, it's a little bit different because I feel like besides those two guys, everybody else is kind of up for grabs," Noah said. "People are projected higher than others, but I feel like I'm working out with the same teams that everybody else is working out [for], so I feel like I have an equal shot."

Now that Noah is on the doorstep of the NBA, he can't wait for what is about to occur, especially the change in his lifestyle.

"You came to our dorms, and now the dorm is probably going to be [equivalent to] like, the [size of a] bathroom -- and yeah, I think that's cool," Noah said. "It's a completely different life, just the way you travel, the way just everything is first-class.

"But I feel like you just can't forget where you came from, and to know that it's a privilege to play in the NBA. I'm not even in the NBA. I'm just putting my nose out there and getting a little sniff, but even that is just unbelievable. I mean everything you want is basically given to you."

Noah's father, Yannick, won't be at the draft in New York on Thursday due to a prior engagement involving his band. So Noah is flying in his grandfather from Cameroon.

"The day he comes in, I'm getting his suit made and he'll be hyped about that," Noah said.

What color?

"Whatever he wants, whatever he wants he can get."

"What about you, how you going to look?" I asked.

"I'm gonna be very funky."

"Have the hair all out?"

"Don't be telling my secrets."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.