CHICAGO — The text messages from Brad Miller ping frequently on Joakim Noah's phone.
"He hits me all the time and tells me he's proud of me. That means everything. That's my guy," Noah said recently in a quiet moment. "He watches a lot of the games and, good or bad, he always gives me his opinion. I know he's proud because all he cares about is backdoor passes. He doesn't care about defense with his fat butt; that's for sure."
Noah turns 29 on Tuesday and what he's accomplishing for the Bulls as a passing big man is serious stuff. With his career-high 13 assists last week in Toronto, he became the first center with three games of 10 or more assists in a season since Miller posted five for the Kings in 2005-06.
That game also marked the most assists by a center since Vlade Divac also had 13 with the Lakers in April 1996. Told this detail in the aftermath of that game, Noah's eyes grew wide.
"That's beautiful. I love Vlade," Noah said. "All those (coach Rick) Adelman guys, man, they're great models. 'Throw it to me at the elbow and I got you. I'm going to make something happen.'"
Noah has never met Divac, who averaged 3.1 assists over 16 NBA seasons, but heard plenty of stories about him from Miller from their shared 2003-04 season with the Kings. Noah said he developed his own appreciation for Divac when he attended the gold medal game between the U.S. and Serbia and Montenegro at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
"I remember I had a Penny Hardaway jersey on and Vlade was just killing," Noah said. "Then he got in foul trouble and that's when the U.S. went on their run. I was just so impressed by his passion and the way he played. I started watching him regularly. The way he played was so smooth, making plays from the top of the key."
That's what Noah is doing with regularity. Though the Bulls ran offense through Noah before, his opportunities have increased the last two seasons with Derrick Rose out.
Always more gifted offensively than credited for because of his unorthodox jumper, Noah is averaging a career-high 4.5 assists. That's the highest mark from a center since Miller averaged 4.7 in 2005-06 and well ahead of second-place Spencer Hawes' 3.3 per game.
And Noah, whose team-high 241 assists are 43 more than runner-up Kirk Hinrich, is trying to become the first center to lead his team in assists since David Robinson topped the Spurs in 1993-94.
Even if he doesn't reach his goal, Noah will give some credit to Miller - with a tweak, of course.
"I'll never forget that one day at the Berto after practice," Noah recalled. "Brad said, 'Come over here. This is what you need to do. You're not going to be a catch-it-in-the-post guy. I got some things that can really help you. Just listen to what I got. I'm going to teach you some things at the elbow and it's going to help your career.' It changed a lot of things for me.
"For me, Brad is always my vet. There's no lying in that. Even if he said all that with a big dip (of chewing tobacco) in his mouth."