Nerlens Noel: How No. 1 Recruit Became a Forgotten Man at Kentucky
The announcement, which Noel made via haircut, came nine days after the Wildcats captured their eighth national championship and seemed to signal Noel's arrival as a major figure in the world of college basketball. Where Anthony Davis' unibrow had left off, Noel's flat-top fade would surely carry on.
It hasn't quite worked out that way, though through no fault of Noel's. A combination of poor team play and unreasonable expectation has dimmed the 6'10" freshman's star, replacing frothy preseason hype with a sense of muted disappointment.
In the odd trajectory of Noel's brief college career, however, something vital has been lost: The dude is silly good. And college basketball fans would be wise to appreciate that simple truth before he takes his talents to the next level.
The idea for this column sprang from a "Freshman of the Year" ranking released by CBS.com's Jeff Borzello on January 22nd. In the piece, Borzello touted Noel as the season's fifth best newcomer and led with a brief defense of the Massachusetts native's play:
Has Noel been a disappointment this season? Yes, he was the No. 1 player in the class of 2012—but I'm not sure how he's been a bust or anything even close to that. He's one of the best defensive players in the country, blocking shots at an extremely high rate and also stepping out and defending the perimeter at times.
Borzello could be creating a strawman here—as suggested by some of the feedback to his piece on Twitter—but even if there isn't a vocal Noel-as-bust contingent, it's safe to say that the Kentucky star hasn't emerged as a major name outside the sphere of college basketball devotees.
Noel's stalled celebrity status is in part due to Kentucky's struggles as a team.
At 12-6, the Wildcats are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for just the second time in the last 22 years. Stranded in a weak conference that presents precious few opportunities to impress the selection committee, John Calipari's team may well need a victory over eighth-ranked Florida to secure a spot in the Big Dance. In Lexington, those kinds of middling results are cause for aggressive consternation and finger pointing.
By virtue of his number-one high school ranking, Noel is the obvious fall guy for his team's shortcomings. When Davis and five of his college teammates declared for the NBA draft last spring, pundits and fans expected Noel to fill the void. In the one-and-done factory created by Calipari—a system that has produced back-to-back Final Four appearances—that's what blue-chip prospects do: They fill the departed's shoes, seamlessly and with haste.
In Noel's case that meant mirroring the production of Davis, the reigning national player of the year.
The similarities between the two are obvious.
Both measure in at a shade under seven feet. Both are innately gifted shot blockers with surprising perimeter quickness. Both were the number one recruit in their respective high school classes. Both chose Big Blue.
Of course Davis was and is utterly without peer. His freshman season was one of the best college basketball has ever witnessed, right alongside Kevin Durant and Greg Oden in the annals of recent history. The chances of Noel matching Davis in individual production or team success were always remote, no matter what the lazy comparisons projected.
But to let that overshadow all Noel has done this season would be shameful.
Even a cursory glance at Noel's dashboard statistics—10.7 points per game, 9.4 rebounds per game, 4.2 blocks per game, 2.5 steals per game—reveals just how good the Kentucky forward has been through his first 18 college games.
A look inside the tempo-free numbers says even more.
According to kenpom.com, Noel is eleventh in the country in block percentage, one of just two freshmen to rank among the top 15 nationally in that category. More remarkable is the fact that the 6'10", Noel is 39th overall in steal percentage, and fifth in the SEC.
Put simply, Noel's combination of inside/outside defense is unmatched, even when compared to Davis, who ranked third in block percentage last year but just 494th in steal percentage. In fact, Noel is the only player over 6'8", currently ranked in the top 100 nationally in steal percentage, a testament to his rare blend of size and athleticism.
And while Noel's offensive game needs polish, it's worth noting that he's seventh in the SEC in effective field goal percentage. Not bad for a player still lacking a sophisticated post-up game.
If you're more of a visual learner, I'd invite you to watch the first 35 seconds of this highlight clip.
Within the first eight minutes of the annual Blue-White game, we see Noel reject seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein at the rim, intercept a perimeter bounce pass, lead a fast-court break and finish said fast-court break with an alley-oop dunk.
There aren't more than handful of college players in America who could do all four of those things in a full season. Noel did it in his first exhibition game, and the final three all in one sequence.
It could be a long time before we see anything like him again.
Problem is we saw something superficially similar to Noel just last year in Davis, only the 'Brow had a splendid offensive game to boot and a superior supporting cast around him.
To hammer home just how extraordinary Davis was, it's worth looking at another statistic developed by kenpom.com called similarity score.
The concept is simple: Use a single composite figure to determine which players have the most compatible statistical profiles. Score range up to 1,000, with 1,000 representing players that are theoretically identical.
According to Ken Pomeroy, the statistic's creator, a score above 900 represents a "good match" while scores above 850 are "useful." Almost every player, even those considered the best of the best, has at least one match that falls in the useful range.
Noel's closest comparison, for example, is the 2011 season of current Louisville junior Gorgui Dieng, with whom he shares a 849 similarity score. The 2011 version of Jared Sullinger and the 2008 version of Kevin Love sit at 866. Even a transcendent talent like Greg Oden grades at an 810 when placed alongside the aforementioned Sullinger.
Then there's Davis, whose game was so gobsmackingly multifaceted that his closest match checks in at a laughable 784—essentially the point where drawing any connection between the two would be a meaningless charade.
That player's name: Nerlens Noel.
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