There are some legitimate reasons to think Nerlens Noel could be next season's Rookie of the Year and the best player to enter the league next season.
Noel was the headline talent in last year's draft class, widely regarded as the worst in a decade. Concerns about his surgically repaired knee pushed him down to the sixth pick, where he was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans as part of a deal that ultimately sent him to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Noel sat out this entire season rehabbing his knee and working himself back into shape. As the 76ers battled league-worst infamy, his absence mostly pushed him from the public eye. But while his reputation has been somewhat tarnished by simply not being able to play, it's important to remember that he was the consensus top talent in last year's draft, and with good reason.
Making statistical projections for draft prospects is an indelicate art at best, but some of the publicly available models have become increasingly proficient at both identifying hidden talents and properly evaluating the ceilings of those prospects at the top. One of these models with a considerable track record of success is Layne Vashro's.
Vashro's model blends player statistics, indicators of level of competition, age and size to project an "Expected Wins Peak" (EWP) for each college prospect. This is essentially a projection of the best season each prospect is likely to have over the course of his career.
Last season his model projected an EWP of 19.4 for Noel. That projection puts Noel considerably ahead of anyone in this year's draft class. Vashro has also made retroactive projections for every draft class going back to 1984. Putting Noel into that historic class, we find that his projection places him above every single collegiate draft prospect over that span except Anthony Davis, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. That's elite company and a set of comparisons that stretches credulity, but it's not the only such statistically based draft model that rates Noel ahead of the entire 2014 draft class.
While analytics have worked their way deeper and deeper into the inner sanctums of many teams, numbers can only take you so far. This video scouting report from DraftExpress details exactly some of the things that made Noel such a tantalizing prospect last season.
Noel is a fantastic finisher around the rim, but that is roughly the extent of his offensive game at this point. The really mesmerizing parts of his game are his potential as an interior defender and the way his athletic tools allow him to expand that defensive range all the way out to the three-point line.
The most important piece of good scouting is tying together all the available information, both visual and statistical. In Noel's case, all of the great things scouts see on the tape tie directly back to numerical evidence, particularly at the defensive end.
In his freshman season at the University of Kentucky, Noel averaged 2.1 steals, 4.4 blocks and 9.5 rebounds per game. Among basic statistics, rebounds and blocks have two of the highest correlations between college and professional performance. Essentially, if you can rebound and block shots in college, chances are you are also going to be able to do those things well in the NBA.
But the most intriguing of those three statistics is his steals. Steals also translate extremely well from college to the pros. Recent research has also shown that their value in determining a player's impact is much larger than a simple change of possession and that, in a college prospect, they are actually a strong indicator of offensive potential.
It may seem strange to think of steals as evidence of how good a player could be offensively, but if you think of them as a reflection of a player's edge in athleticism and awareness, it becomes a more comfortable connection.
Noel's defensive potential is eye-popping on tape, and combining that with the considerable statistical evidence of his abilities creates the picture of a player ready to make a powerful impact in the near future.
But it still may seem like a stretch to covet him above the prospects in this year's class. Leading up to year's draft, analysts like Chris Sheridan were dismissing the 2013 draft class as quickly as they were praising the group of prospects to follow:
While the 2013 NBA draft has been called “historically weak” by one GM, the 2014 draft could be historically strong.
We’re talking 2003 strong.
That’s when the first five picks went like this: LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade. (Who would have thought that three of those five would one day end up playing for the same franchise?)
The 2014 draft is so loaded, one NBA GM said there are half a dozen players in it that would go No. 1 this year.
But throughout the college basketball season, all the top prospects begin to reveal their flaws.
Joel Embiid carries at least as many injury concerns as Noel did, and Vashro pointed out how he struggled to make a defensive impact without also fouling:
Embiid simply needs to stop doing one really problematic thing. Embiid’s rebounding and shot-blocking are both excellent and for his position you could argue the same for his passing, while his scoring is solid. Unfortunately he is fouling at an almost unplayable rate (7.6 per 40 minutes).
Andrew Wiggins flashed all the physical tools that have had scouts drooling. But he also was inconsistent on defense, passive on offense and, as Andrew Johnson noted, struggled to leverage his skills into half-court efficiency:
Andrew Wiggins is under performing in non-transition scoring. His overall eFG% is somewhat below average at 49%, and his non-transition eFG% is only 47%, well below average for a projected first round back-court player.
Jabari Parker proved to be an impressively polished scorer but didn't seem to have much else to offer. Julius Randle was a defensive disaster. You can work your way through any mock draft and find at least two question marks for every definitive NBA-caliber skill.
That's not to say this draft class won't be fantastic. Although they look much less top-heavy than they did at the beginning of the season, the depth is undeniable. But this is the nature of the draft process: The more we see, the more we find to criticize.
Nerlens Noel has already been through that ringer and hasn't had a chance to step onto an NBA court and start answering those questions. On some level, he already seems like a disappointment because all there is to focus on is him falling in the draft and not playing basketball. But what he showed at Kentucky, on the court and in the numbers, indicates a talent that can absolutely stand up to anything available in this year's draft.
Just remember, next season's Rookie of the Year may not come from this year's draft.