Nerlens Noel: The Next Great Big Man?
Nobody can score on Nerlens Noel. The 18-year-old is swatting away jump shots, pinning lay-ups against the backboard and sending dunk attempts into the stands. The offense tries to adjust, but Noel continues to turn away shot after shot. The opposition feels helpless, realizing they’re unable to compete with this man among boys. Noel finishes the game with 22 blocks, a personal record.
It’s easy to see why so many scouts and coaches have fallen in love with Noel. He’s a once-in-a-generation player, who dominates on both ends of the court using his size (6’11) and length (7’5 wingspan). He’ll make his college basketball debut with the Kentucky Wildcats in November, but his name has been mentioned in NBA circles for quite some time.
Everything about Noel is extremely unique, from his high-top fade to the way he approaches the game.
While most top high school players make a name for themselves on the offensive end, Noel has always preferred to play defense. He would rather block a shot than score a basket. While other kids were idolizing scorers, Noel was studying how Kevin Garnett anchored a defense. When he first started playing for a travel team, he didn’t want the ball in his hands, choosing to focus entirely on shutting down the opposition.
“I’ve had a defensive mentality since I was young,” Noel said. “I always wanted to help my team win and I realized that defense was my thing. I knew I could just dominate defensively.”
Noel possesses amazing instincts on the defensive end. Some scouts say he’s the best shot-blocker that they’ve ever seen, even better than recent high school stars such as Dwight Howard and Greg Oden. At 18 years old, Noel has already drawn comparisons to NBA legend Bill Russell.
“That’s a crazy comparison,” Noel said. “Bill Russell is a great player, who won many championships. That’s an amazing compliment and something that I like to hear. With that said, I have to stay humble and hungry. I have to continue working on my game so that I can live up to the hype.”
If he develops as expected and realizes his full potential, the sky is the limit for Noel.
“He has superstar potential,” said one scout. “He may be the next great big man.”
Noel fell in love with basketball at a young age, thanks in large part to his father, Yonel, and two older brothers, Jim and Rodman. When the group wasn’t playing pick-up games together in their backyard, they were watching the Boston Celtics on television.
“I started playing in the yard with my dad and two older brothers,” Noel said. “Then, I started taking basketball seriously when I was in seventh grade. [My favorite team] has always been the Celtics and I liked Kevin Garnett. At a young age, I would watch KG. I studied his game and I really liked the way he played. I would always try to play just like him.”
While it’s hard to imagine, Noel was the smallest player on the court during those pick-up games in the backyard. Jim, standing at 6’4, was a phenomenal athlete who starred in basketball, football and track in high school. He would eventually accept a scholarship from Boston College and become the team’s starting strong safety. Rodman, 6’3, was also a basketball and football standout, who was heavily recruited in both sports. He chose to play football at North Carolina State, where he’ll start at linebacker this upcoming season.
Throughout Noel’s development, his brothers pushed him to work harder and avoid complacency.
At a young age, Noel was content with dominating on defense and allowing other players to carry the scoring load. He would constantly defer to his teammates, passing every time the ball made its way into his hands. Noel’s mentality was to make an impact on defense and get out of the way on offense.
“I was reluctant to shoot,” Noel admits. “I didn’t want to miss any shots. I knew I could help the team on defense, but I didn’t want to hurt my team on the offensive end.”
Realizing that he needed to become a well-rounded player, Noel worked tirelessly on improving his offensive game. Using the same attributes that allowed him to excel as a defender – his length, athleticism and size – he made huge strides and became a threat on offense. As his confidence increased, he went from being an offensive liability to a number one option in little time.
“It’s come a very long way,” Noel said of his offensive game. “I’m still improving, especially this summer. I’ve been in the gym a lot, working on my shot. It’s really come a long way from when I was younger. My whole mindset has changed. I know that I have to score. My confidence has grown a lot too. It’s a good thing. It gives my team the best chance to win.”
Not only did his brothers help him improve as a player, they’ve kept him levelheaded. In the past year, Noel has become a household name. He has over 54,000 followers on Twitter and he’s approached by star-struck fans and autograph seekers no matter where he goes. When he committed to Kentucky on national television – announcing his decision by revealing a UK logo that was shaved into his hair – he became an even bigger sensation. Suddenly, everyone knew the 18-year-old and his signature look.
But before Noel was the top high school player in the nation, he was their little brother. It wasn’t long ago that Noel was tagging along with his brothers and copying their every move. While some teenagers would let all of the attention and praise go to their head, Jim and Rodman refused to let that happen with Nerlens.
“My older brothers have always kept my head at a good level,” Noel said. “They don’t let me get too ahead of myself. Even since they’ve went away to college, they’ve made sure that I stay humble and continue to work on my game. They’ll never let the hype get to my head. A lot of thanks go to my older brothers.”
Next month, Noel will make his way to the University of Kentucky and start the next chapter of his life. Rather than remaining in high school for one more year, he decided to reclassify in February, joining the class of 2012 so that he could get his college career underway.
“I just felt that staying in high school wouldn’t benefit me as well as going to a college program would,” Noel said. “They have more resources for me to better myself and achieve the things I want in life, like playing in the NBA. I thought high school would just hold me back and level me off. I wanted to keep it going and keep improving. I felt I was ready for college so I did it.”
While Noel to Kentucky seemed inevitable given John Calipari’s history of landing top recruits, the big man seriously considered committing to Georgetown or Syracuse. At the end of the day, it was Anthony Davis’ emergence at Kentucky that was the deciding factor for Noel.
“Georgetown and Syracuse were great schools, but I thought Kentucky would be the best fit for me,” Noel said. “It was the Anthony Davis factor. Me and Anthony Davis are very similar players and, after seeing how successful he was there and what Coach Calipari was able to do for him, it was hard to say no to that. He won National Player of the Year and a national championship. He’ll probably be the number one pick. It was hard to say no after seeing all of that.”
The two big men have become friends in the last year. While Noel has big shoes to fill, especially after Davis delivered a national title, he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m not dodging the pressure,” Noel said. “If I tried to dodge it, I wouldn’t feel good about myself. This opportunity gives me a chance to establish myself as a great player rather than just a good player. It’s a lot of pressure but that’s something I live for. The main focus for me is to go in there and get better. I want to do the best I can and bring another championship to Kentucky.”
Even without playing a minute of college basketball, Noel is already being projected as the top overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
“That would be a dream come true, for me and my family,” Noel said. “I’ll have my family there with me and it’ll be a real emotional moment for all of us.”
Noel’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time. Outside of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, the NBA is lacking dominant big men. Every few years, a titan with a high ceiling comes along, but more often than not, they fail to live up to expectations. Yao Ming and Greg Oden didn’t reach their full potential due to injuries. Darko Milicic and Hasheem Thabeet didn’t have the work ethic necessary to be top-tier bigs. In today’s NBA, there are plenty of mediocre centers and very few superstars in the paint.
Will Noel live up to the hype and become the next great big man? Only time will tell.