As the NBA athlete evolves, teams must look to adapt.
Over the last ten years we've seen a new breed of athleticism. Dwight Howard. LeBron. Russell Westbrook. Coaching staffs look for ways to combat physical disadvantages through strategy and game-planning. Ultimately, the most effective defense against this new type of size, speed and explosiveness has been hiring qualified rim security.
Nerlens Noel's appeal as an elite NBA prospect stems directly from his ability to protect the paint.
Despite tearing his ACL in February, Noel remains the top prospect in college basketball given his defensive potential and long-term upside. He was leading the country in shot-blocking before the injury while averaging 9.5 rebounds per game.
Though he'll likely have to miss a good chunk of his rookie year, teams are looking at the big picture here. Noel has the potential to change games on the defensive side of the ball, which could be worthy of a No. 1 pick given his lack of challengers in the 2013 NBA draft.
Noel measures in around 6'11'' with a monstrous 7'3.5'' wingspan. He's an incredible athlete for a kid that size, and has the foot speed and springs to cover enormous ground and aerial territory in order to track down loose rebounds, finish in transition or catch lobs at the ball's highest point. Being able to transport a body his size from point A to point B with speed and aggression triggers fear in penetrating guards and opposing frontcourts.
Athletically, he's explosive, with the ability to play above the rim on both sides of the ball.
The bad news is that he weighed in at just 206 pounds at the combine, an awfully low number for a projected NBA center. This is likely the result of not playing the final two months of the season, but adding bulk will be a priority once his knee is back to full strength.
Noel has excellent recovery speed, meaning he can challenge on the strong side, force the ball to the weak side and get there in time to contest the shot. He rarely finds himself out of position because of his ability to quickly get back into the picture, without ever drifting too far from the action.
He's not your typical anchor who just stands there with his hands up. Noel can act as a roaming shot-blocker who plays on the move:
As a rim protector, Noel has extraordinary instincts with regard to anticipating and reacting. Knowing when to challenge at the high post or fall back to the rim are decisions made on the fly. Timing his jumps in rhythm with the shooter, Noel negates dunks and layups from big men while forcing floaters and runners from guards.
Mentally, Noel wants to block everything, and almost seems insulted when someone attempts a shot in his paint. At the NBA level, he'll need to control some of his urges—to know when to contest straight-up or to gamble off the ball. Though it doesn't show up on the box score, altering shots could be just as effective as blocking them.
Here's a quick highlight reel of his 12 blocks against Ole Miss:
Noel scores a ton of his points simply by catching and dunking. He's just not skilled enough to be considered a threat as a scorer in isolation.
But given his athleticism, hops and coordination, Noel is capable of catching lob passes above the rim that nobody else is capable of getting to. Watch Archie Goodwin just throw it up knowing his big man is the only one who can get to it:
In the post, Noel's go-to move, like most young big men, is his over-the-shoulder hook. It's really the only move he gets off right now.
Offensively, Noel is currently just an above-the-rim finisher and low-post scorer. With space to operate, he's got the footwork that allows him to position himself for easy buckets, though creating that space and separation is what he'll need to work on.
Because of Noel's size, length, springs and motor, Noel is a constant presence on the boards. He's a solid overall rebounder, with the ability to track down balls at their highest point.
Here's an example of Noel going after a loose rebound and coming down with it in traffic, before going back up for an easy two points:
Noel doesn't exactly have many tricks in his bag standing on the perimeter, rarely attempting or making a jump shot with two hands on the ball. He shot just 52.9 percent from the foul-line, illustrating his lack of touch from outside.
Other than adding muscle, Noel must become more of a threat with the ball in his hands. He's just too good of an athlete to be limited offensively.
Before he starts worrying about making shots, he has to worry about getting them off. That over-the-shoulder hook needs to become a routine weapon before he starts adding to the arsenal. He'll also have to work on countermoves and other ways he can generate his own offense in the half court.
Draft Breakdown and NBA Outlook
Noel remains the favorite to go No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers based on the upside he offers as a defensive game-changer. Without many enticing alternative options, Noel's ACL injury isn't likely to prevent them from passing.
The value of a rim protector has increased over the past few years. We've seen the impact a guy like Tyson Chandler has had with the Mavericks and the Knicks. This year, we're seeing Roy Hibbert do the same for the Pacers.
Noel falls under the same category as someone who can shrink the size of the hoop he's defending. It may not result in any All-Star invitations, but the potential impact Noel can make is worth the top pick in this draft.