The Challenge In Evaluating Nerlens Noel
Senior NBA Writer & College Basketball Editor
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Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel is roughly halfway through the biggest transition in his life. Going from high school to college is a tough task for just the average individual, but Noel is far from that.
From the moment after the Wildcats won the national championship last season, talk began about how great Noel was going to be for them this season. It was a formality that the core from last year’s team would enter the NBA Draft, but Noel was billed as someone who could make the Wildcats viable threats to defend their crown.
That was something that Noel had no control over. He never wanted to be built up to be the next Anthony Davis. Davis was one of the best freshmen college basketball has ever seen. He dominated in a unique way that few players before him ever have, regardless of class. However, Noel was a dominant shotblocker at the high school level with a similar frame and equally impressive athleticism. The comparisons were inevitable. Add in the fact that every John Calipari recruit is now looked at as a future pro and likely a one-and-done, Noel ended up being great in a lot of people’s minds before he ever had the chance to show whether he was good or not.
Now, with respectful but not mind-blowing averages of 10.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 3.9 blocks and 2.8 steals a game, the talk about Noel is a lot less positive than it was last offseason. Those who were expecting a reincarnation of Davis have been left disappointed. Noel is certainly not that, but is he still a good NBA prospect nonetheless?
The answer is a resounding yes, but only if you look at him solely for who he is and could be, not who he isn’t right now.
The most important thing to take into account first and foremost is that this year’s Kentucky team is young and inexperienced. While talented, they simply do not have the chemistry or cohesiveness that previous teams had. They’re still learning their roles and figuring out how to best play off of each other, all while dealing with the immense pressure that comes from playing for one of the nation’s premiere programs. Wildcat fans don’t hope to compete for a championship every year, they expect to. Anything less isn’t acceptable.
Secondly, Noel isn’t the kind of prospect who just seems like he needs to be in the NBA right now. He probably wouldn’t until he’s a sophomore at the earliest. But, players don’t stick around at Kentucky long and despite how raw he is, Noel is still projected as a lottery pick by most talent evaluators. He was ninth on our latest mock draft, but most have him ranked in the top three. Some still even have him number one.
Noel is at least 15 lbs. away from being able to hold his own physically against the grown men who patrol the paint in the NBA. He also has a long way to go offensively. Right now he has a very basic low post game that features him mainly trying to face up and get by people or a baby hook shot. He’s not very comfortable at the free throw line either, making just 57 percent of his attempts.
Where Noel intrigues the most is definitely on the defensive side of the floor. He’s extremely active with great length, athleticism and lateral movement for someone of his size. Engaged is the best way to describe him defensively. He’s better off the ball than on, though, which will have to change. It won’t matter how great of a help defender he is in the NBA, if he can’t guard his own man he won’t get on the floor.
Noel lacks in areas where major improvements can be made. When you realize that he’s still only 18 years old, it’s completely understandable that he’s not the best player he can be just yet. Few players are at that age.
Like many players before him, Noel is a victim of being overhyped by people who are too eager to see the next great basketball player rather than a raw prospect develop over time. If Noel stayed at Kentucky for two more years, he’d likely dominate in a Davis-like manner and do the things that most expected him to do out of the gate. Then he would a player who could realistically be expected to lead his team to a championship, which he is not right now as the Wildcats have a lot of work to do just to secure their spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Odds are Noel’s best days are not going to come at Kentucky. By the time he’s figured everything out and maximized his potential, he’ll be long gone. From a business standpoint, he’s probably better off leaving for the NBA no matter how this season ends. The 2013 recruiting class has some serious star power and of course some of the best big men in it are Kentucky bound. Sticking around to battle with them for minutes when a spot in the top 15 of the 2013 NBA Draft is waiting for you is a move that he’ll likely be heavily advised against.
So, with there likely only being a couple months left in his collegiate career, as you watch Noel and try to get to know him, do so as if you know nothing about him at all. You’ll be far more impressed than you would be if you read up on him and got caught up in who a lot of people wanted Noel to be. He’s no Player of the Year candidate or someone who can be the face of a NBA franchise immediately, but Noel definitely has a bright future ahead of him and upside that few players in this draft class can match.