Nerlens Noel spent his first season as a professional athlete in anonymity, taking a redshirt year to recover from a torn ACL. That’s about to change in a big way.
Consider his college career: Though Noel only played 24 games at Kentucky before a torn knee truncated his season, in that short time, he made a powerful argument that he has the requisite tools to be a difference-maker at the game’s highest level.
Simply put, the Wildcat was a defensive dynamo. In 31.9 minutes a night at Lexington, the freshman averaged 4.4 blocks and a stunning 2.1 steals. The combined figure, according to Waiting for Next Year, is the third-highest total in college hoops since 1999-2000.
These numbers suggest he’ll fit in fine in the Association. According to Kevin Pelton’s Wins About Replacement Player projection system, Noel profiled as the top player in the 2013 class.
The steal figures are particularly instructive here. In Pelton’s historical database, in addition to Noel, only three post players notched a steal rate of two percent or higher. “Steal rate tends to be an indicator of quickness that translates at the NBA level,” Pelton wrote.
More good news: Not only are steals suggestive of the sort of athleticism required to make hay in the NBA, but swipes, as FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris argued in March, are also much more consequential than is widely understood. So buy some Noel stock now.
The fact that he tore his ACL also doesn’t figure to lower his ceiling in any meaningful way. Pelton, then writing for Basketball Prospectus, found that NBA players who suffered an ACL tear suffered pretty minor downticks in production the season they returned to the floor. And younger men, not surprisingly, appeared to heal faster. Twenty-one-year-olds saw just a 2.7 percent reduction in total performance after the injury.
Furthermore, according to Pelton, the stuff that Noel does really well—generate steals and rebounds—tends to be unaffected by the injury.
There’s also reason to think Noel will be less affected by his ACL than most: When the forward steps on an NBA floor for the first time, he’ll be 20 months removed from his last basketball game that counts in the standings. Far as I can tell, this will be the lengthiest ACL recovery period in recent league history.
In fact, though it’s counterintuitive, Noel’s ACL might have made him more prepared to succeed from the first whistle. All last season, he enjoyed the tutelage of Sixers coach Brett Brown and the rest of Philadelphia’s ace developmental staff. (Brown, for the uninitiated, was the Spurs' director of development when a couple of guys called Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were learning the game.)
During this time, rather than being rushed into action—where bad habits and mechanics can calcify—Noel had his mediocre jumper broken down and rebuilt from the ground up. A common sight before 2013-14 Sixers games was Noel taking 18-footer after 18-footer while Brown patiently watched and counseled him.
In the NBA Summer League, where Nerlens made his unofficial debut (the first Noel?) the tantalizing possibility of his game came closer into focus. In short: he dominated Orlando and Vegas—and did so in a way that married the best aspects of his college game with the new tricks he learned while apprenticing with the Sixers a season ago.
“His defensive presence was sensational in person,” CBSSports.com’s Zach Harper wrote after watching Noel protect the rim like a pit bull in Vegas.
“He's been the most explosive big man on the floor in each game he's played in,” gushed Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman.
“His length and leaping ability make him an intimidating force in the paint,” added ProBasketballTalk’s Kurt Helin. “The guys on the Sixers bench were counting the number of shots Noel altered and said it got into double digits before they lost track.”
Encouragingly, he also showed improvement as a shooter. After knocking down just 52.9 percent of his free throws at Kentucky, according to Wasserman, he hit 15 of his first 20 freebies over the summer. He showed bolstered skills as a shot-creator as well.
Awed by the sheer force of his play, a consensus quickly and correctly formed around the forward: This guy is ready to play. Now.
Noel’s game—and his counting stats—should benefit from Philly’s run-and-gun offense, too. The Sixers played at the fastest pace in the NBA in 2013-14, which is a perfect fit for Noel’s athleticism. This isn’t a methodical, grinding, half-court system that will underscore Noel’s lack of offensive polish. Philly plays fast-break basketball. And that’s a style the gazelle-like Noel is equally suited for.
Taken together, it feels like Noel is on the precipice of a monster rookie season. And even within what's expected to be a very strong freshman class, he could be the best of the bunch.
Andrew Wiggins is an extraordinary talent, but he's raw and unlikely to distinguish himself as an offensive threat in year one. Same story with Aaron Gordon and Dante Exum. Meanwhile Marcus Smart is still blocked by Rajon Rondo in Boston and, while Julius Randle appears ready to make an instant impact for the Los Angeles Lakers, his ceiling seems lower than Noel's.
The most likely threat to Noel in the ROY race is likely the Milwaukee Bucks' Jabari Parker. But while the Duke product is a near certainty to outscore Noel, he lacks the athleticism to affect the game in the range of ways Nerlens can.
"Watch him on defense and you begin wondering how he wasn't the top pick in that draft," a scout told Harper in Vegas.
After this year, that’s a question more people around the league will be asking themselves.