It was lightly speculated that he would return to Kentucky next season after his year was cut short, but that hope was quickly crushed on Monday when he announced he would test the NBA waters (via SportsCenter):
THIS JUST IN: Kentucky C Nerlens Noel has announced that he will enter the NBA draft. Noel is projected as the No. 1 overall pick.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 15, 2013
As such, with the regular season winding down, fans of the Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic—the teams with the best shot at the top pick—have little else to do besides learn everything there is to know about the explosive Kentucky freshman.
Every conversation about Noel must begin—and sometimes end—with his defensive prowess, as he has the skill set and build to be a future defensive player of the year at the next level.
Noel's ability to defend the rim is reason No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and possibly even 5 why he is being considered for the top pick.
Naturally—and somewhat lazily—he'll continually be compared to Anthony Davis, the dynamite shot-blocker who preceded Noel at Kentucky and was drafted No. 1 overall last year. So, let's get that out of the way first (stats via StatSheet.com):
On the surface, the defensive comparison seems legitimate, but the way each player compiled his stats couldn't be much more different.
Noel relied on his explosive athleticism, trampoline-like leaping ability and aggressive nature to rack up blocks, while Davis was more of an intelligent defender who was adept and impressively effective at helping off his man. Noel hunted blocks, whereas Davis allowed it to happen within the flow of the game.
That's apparent in their fouls per game—Noel: 2.58; Davis: 1.95.
This isn't to say Noel is anything less than a superstar defender. But when you consider Davis being lightyears ahead of his successor on the offensive level, it should simply put to rest the comparisons between the Wildcat alumni.
Instead, if we're looking for an NBA equivalent from the current pool of players, look no further than Larry Sanders.
Who will have a better NBA career?
They are both what you might call the modern center. They aren't "true" big men in the sense that they have overwhelming strength or back-you-down weight, but they are tall and long with undeniable athleticism and agility.
In just his third year in the league, Sanders has used that athletic ability to put himself at No. 13 in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage and second in block percentage (among players with 1,000 minutes played).
Although he has taken a significant step forward on the offensive end this year, he is still raw offensively with very few post moves and not much of a consistent jumper. Instead, he relies on offensive rebounds (3.2 per game), put-backs and dunks to create his offense.
Put it all together, and that's Noel in a nutshell: an elite, shot-blocking defender who has copious room for improvement on the offensive end but can thrive in transition or off the glass.
There are differences, of course. At just 18, Noel presents far more upside than Sanders, who entered the league at 21.
But if you want to know what kind of role the former Kentucky big man will have in two or three years, look no further than what Sanders is currently doing in his breakout year for the Bucks.