In my second installment of “Freshman Prospects Before New Year's”, I explore another one of Kentucky's standout freshmen in Nerlens Noel, a big man who some are anointing as the early favorite for the number one selection in the 2013 NBA Draft. Prior to committing to Kentucky, Noel was one of the most coveted recruits in the country after reclassifying, leading his Tilton School squad and earning the top ranking in the ESPN100 for the class of 2012.
Noel’s greatest strength as a prospect comes from his raw physical tools. Standing at 6’10, Noel has a 7’4 wingspan and the frame to add more weight in time. Noel is very explosive athletically, and this is evident on both ends of the floor. On the offensive side, he is able to maneuver past slower big men and finish over them. He possesses the first step and second gear to eventually become an elite face up big man. On the defensive side, he is one of the top help side shot blockers in the country, leaving his man to alter and contest shots that would be out of reach for someone without his athletic gifts.
On the offensive end, Noel’s game is confined to the interior, where he makes a living off of garbage baskets and tip ins. This has enabled him to become a fairly efficient offensive option, putting up the 21st best Offensive Rating in the SEC. Because of his explosive nature, he is often the recipient of alley oop passes when he makes basket cuts. He is able to get to the basket in a hurry, and this allows him to sneak past defensive players for opportunities on the offensive glass and emphatic slam dunks. As it currently stands, Noel has the 15th best Offensive Rebounding Percentage in the SEC. I expect for this number to only increase as the season progresses, as the Wildcats will rely heavily on him to create extra opportunities.
Furthermore, Noel shows promise as a faceup big man. Calipari often has him stationed at the free throw line, where he can kick the ball out to open shooters or explode to the rim. Noel has no problems creating his shot off the dribble from the free throw line in, and is quick enough to drive past his man and avoid offensive fouls. However, against top tier opponents, Noel must do a better job finishing on these possessions, as he tends to struggle scoring through contact at this point. This is due in large part to his lack of physical strength, which will come in time with the proper training and effort. While it may take Noel some time before he can create his shot from the three point line, I do believe that his handle is serviceable enough that he will be able to duplicate his current efforts attacking the rim at the next level. When he does end up driving to the hoop, Noel must do a better job keeping his head up and looking for open teammates.
With his strengths in mind, Noel is going to struggle keeping defenses honest at the next level. While it is a testament to his quickness that big men consistently overplay him on faceup drives and he is still able to get his shot off, it will be more difficult for him to do this successfully at the next level. He does have the requisite tools to thrive as a faceup four, but may be limited if defenses collapse. This is due to the fact that Noel cannot shoot from the perimeter and has a long way to go before he can consistently develop a reliable jumper. His shooting form needs a great deal of work, as evinced by his 53.8 free throw percentage. His lack of a reliable jumper from the free throw line makes his drives to the rim very predictable.
In addition to his faceup abilities, Noel shows some promise as a pick and roll big man. He does a nice job setting screens high and cutting to the basket. Unfortunately, his teammates have not been able to see this situation evolve quickly enough to get him the ball. Their inability to find him in time has a lot to do with Harrow’s recovery from illness/absence and Goodwin’s tentative nature still adjusting to the lead guard spot. So, I do expect Harrow and Goodwin to mature in their roles by the end of the year, and for Noel to be the recipient of more looks cutting to the basket. I can think of countless times when he slipped a screen and would have had a wide open opportunity at the rim if his teammates had found him sooner.
Like most incoming big men, Noel’s back-to-the-basket game is very raw at this point, and he must work on improving his footwork. He currently has a jump hook in his arsenal, but not much else unless he decides to face up. Additionally, Noel does not currently have the lower body strength to be a threat on the block at the next level. He will have a hard time sealing his man with his current physique (and high center of gravity), and he may be edged far out towards the three point line.
Despite the fact that he can be ‘chested’ away from the block on post ups, Noel still manages to draw fouls at a pretty high rate. Overall, he is averaging 4.3 fouls drawn per 40 minutes of action, which compares favorably to Anthony Davis and other promising big men with elite level athleticism.
Regardless of his limitations offensively, most scouts believe that Noel’s future rests as an elite defender at the next level. I believe that Noel certainly has the elite physical tools to make this happen, but is currently limited in his mental approach to defense. First, it must be noted that Noel has tremendous hands and instincts on the defensive side of the ball. He ranks 1st in the SEC (and 15th in the nation) in Blocks Percentage and 4th in the SEC in Steals Percentage. This is a testament to his tremendous athleticism. He is a quick leaper and is able to block and alter shots at a fairly high rate. He is especially effective from the weakside, quickly maneuvering when teammates are beat to the basket. Noel is also capable of blocking shots on the perimeter, and has the lateral quickness to defend that far out. He does a nice job of staying on his feet and not fouling jump shooters. In terms of his ability to steal the ball, Noel has very good hands and is able to poke the ball away to teammates and create transition opportunities.
With that said, Noel plays defense with his hands far too often. He often reaches in instead of establishing position and taking charges. In addition, Noel frequently bites on shot fakes, particularly close to the basket. This allows smaller players to get into his chest and draw fouls. He is currently committing 4.03 fouls per 40 minutes, which is where the Anthony Davis comparison dies. For comparison’s sake, Davis’ tremendous defensive instincts allowed him to block shots at a higher rate than Noel, yet only commit 2.44 fouls per 40 minutes. Additionally, Noel allows big men to obtain deep post position on him, hoping that he can use his elite physical tools to recover and block their shots. However, such a strategy will not work in the NBA, where players possess comparable physical tools and athleticism.
Noel also does a very poor job defending the pick-and-roll, not keeping his eye on his man and trying to hedge too high at times. And, while he does have the quickness to defend on the perimeter, Noel often overcommits on the hedge and does not allow himself time to recover. Also, when he does this, he usually gives the opposition’s guard too much room on the hedge, not getting close enough to trap with his teammate and prevent an easy pick-and-roll feed. However, with his length and recovery speed, Noel should be able to make significant improvements in this area if not this season, then in the NBA.
In terms of his prowess on the defensive glass, Noel has the 7th best Defensive Rebounding Percentage in the SEC, but he could be even more dominant if he improves upon his mental approach to securing the ball. As was alluded to earlier, because he bites too often on shot fakes and looks to block every shot, (even when his teammates are also there to challenge) Noel often allows the opposing team to have easy offensive rebounds and putbacks. This happened on numerous occasions against Jack Cooley and Notre Dame. However, when Noel does box out, he retrieves rebounds at a very high rate; even still, he can improve upon his box out fundamentals by using his lower body more often as opposed to his arms/hands.
Overall, if Nerlens Noel can continue to progress in his understanding of basketball and improve his skillset along the way, he could actualize his potential and become a top player from the 2013 draft class. He does have a long way to go before he can make an impact in the NBA though. The tools and effort are there, and he will only continue to mature physically. Look for teams in the 2013 draft to be intrigued by his physical profile even though his skillset is not there yet.