- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Joakim Noah needs to get to know former USC quarterback Matt Leinart.
Noah has a decision to make. If he returns for his junior season, he'll come back as the preseason national player of the year.
He's that good right now. If he declares for the NBA draft, Florida's sophomore forward will be a lottery pick. That's done. Who knows how high he could climb in the lottery, depending on who is picking? Remember Leinart, after winning the national title, decided against being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft in 2005. He returned to USC and then lost in this season's national title game. He's still going to be in the top three in the NFL draft, so it wasn't all bad to come back.
But Noah is his own free spirit. Like Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, Noah is one of the most unique players in the sport. Certainly, he has emerged as one of its most engaging characters.
His play during the NCAA Tournament was sensational. He earned Most Outstanding Player honors with his two complete games. He had four blocks and scored a dozen points in the win over George Mason and was even more efficient and disruptive in the 73-57 national title win over UCLA with 16 points (on 7-for-9 shooting), nine boards and six blocks. Noah set NCAA Tournament records for blocks in a championship game with six, in the Final Four with 10, and in the event with 29.
"I don't think it's necessary to compare him with anybody. The fact is he had a special performance," said Hall of Fame coach John Thompson, who was broadcasting the game for Westwood One radio.
"Let us just enjoy this moment and we'll talk about that at a later time," Noah said of his decision.
Noah's maturation from one year to the next and his overall play is incredible. He played just two minutes last year in one NCAA Tournament game.
So how did this happen?
Noah said he left after his freshman season to go back to Africa (his father is from Cameroon) for a little break. When he returned to the States, he went to his adopted home of New York. He went to Harlem to play in the famed Rucker League, where he said he got his swagger.
"I'm a kid who grew up from kindergarten to the seventh grade [in Paris]," Noah said. "But I went to Hell's Kitchen and Harlem and got love. Not a lot of people can say that."
Noah didn't slack at all this season. He spent plenty of time working on his jump shot, running, lifting weights and doing everything possible to improve.
Did anyone think he could climb this much -- from barely getting any run behind David Lee to being the star of the NCAA Tournament and a lottery pick?
"Maybe it's going to sound strange, but he just didn't play last year," said his euphoric father, Yannick Noah, who was in the stands to watch his son play. Noah, the 1983 French Open champion, was pointing to his son throughout the game during celebratory moments.
"I'm really surprised by the way he's playing, especially the last few weeks," Yannick Noah said. "He's working hard, and most of all, he's on a good team. The way they play allows him to play his own style."
Lee, who had to go against Noah in practice last season, said he saw how hard Noah worked. Lee, who plays for the New York Knicks and made the trip for the title game, added, "He's done a tremendous job taking the opportunity that he's been given and making the most of it. I knew with his work ethic that he was eventually going to get there. I didn't know how soon it was going to be, but he took the freedom that [coach Billy Donovan] has given him and made magic with this team."
Lee said he expected Noah to be a high draft pick, but he has a strong family, which means he will make an informed decision. Still, Lee observed, "He did just win the biggest championship you can win."
Defending Noah and dealing with his shot-blocking and shot-altering ability became too much to bear for UCLA. Senior center Ryan Hollins said of Noah: "He's long, wiry, and because he's thin, it's hard to feel him when you're going up. He's skilled and doesn't take a bad shot."
That was clear with his high percentage during the tournament (33-for-60 from the field in six games).
"Jo really exploded in the last nine or 10 games," said Florida assistant coach Larry Shyatt, who won a national title after 30-plus years in the business, including head coaching stints at Wyoming and Clemson. But has Shyatt ever seen a player taken off like this from freshman to sophomore year?
"The short answer is no," he said. "I can't think of anyone, certainly no one that did as many things as this guy did. He got better at everything."
Noah's charisma shined throughout this tournament, especially this weekend. Sure, there were times he was a bit too controlling on the dais, and maybe he acted a bit agitated, but his passion, enthusiasm and drive were clear. At the same time, he could be charming with his quick one-liners -- like this one as he neared the end of his postgame news conference, when asked if he winked and grinned at one of the UCLA dance team members.
"No, actually, they were talking a lot of trash. I mean it was crazy," Noah said. "They were just talking crazy to me, like, 'You're so ugly.' I mean, it hurts when you have so many beautiful girls out there just telling you how ugly you are and stuff. I just had to focus on the game. The best thing I could was blow a kiss bye and maybe they would like me."
Well, we can tell Noah that he's beloved by Gator nation, and likely by a slew of NBA teams. Now he has until April 29 to decide whether to share his affection again with Donovan and his Florida teammates. If he chooses to stay, he'll have lots of preseason love as the nation's best player on the defending national champion.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.