Who knew what to expect from Nerlens Noel? Prior to summer league, he'd gone 17 months without playing a minute of five-on-five ball.
If you ask me, just to see him out there in preseason taking hits and bouncing back seems like a win for everyone.
The fact that he's making his presence felt at the defensive end is even more assuring. Defense is ultimately what drives his overall upside and appeal.
It sure isn't offense. Or wasn't.
Kentucky didn't quite feature Noel as a go-to option in 2012-13. He lacked polished footwork and soft touch—a rough combination for a big man.
As a freshman, he only scored .767 points per possession in the post, where he turned the ball over 16.4 percent of the time, per Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.
You'd often see him blindly throw one up at the rim the second he got separation. Noel had some bad misses, a number of fumbles and ugly passes when pressured or forced to make decisions on the move.
Unless he was set up for a finish, Noel posed very little threat to defenses.
Though the sample size is small, it's been pretty clear over the past few months that he's been working toward changing his offensive outlook.
His confidence with the ball appears to be at a whole other level. That might also have something to do with the extra freedom he's gotten in Philadelphia, which he didn't exactly get under coach John Calipari at Kentucky. But he doesn't look as discombobulated as he once did operating one-on-one or in traffic.
We've actually seen Noel operate with some encouraging fluidity in the post.
During five summer league games, he converted five different jump hooks in the lane. He dropped one in against the New York Knicks the other night in fairly smooth fashion:
He's no Hakeem Olajuwon, but Noel is clearly showing cleaner shot delivery. And that's nice to see, especially after he scored just 45 percent of his back-to-the-basket opportunities at Kentucky, per DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony.
We've also seen Noel attempt to take more advantage of his first step. And though he's always been quicker than the guys defending him, his lack of ball skills has held him back from converting off drives.
That hasn't been entirely the case early on. Noel has looked more under control and more decisive when attacking his man and the rim. And he's getting off better looks at the end of his takes, whether they're resulting in finger rolls or trips to the line:
At Kentucky, one thing we certainly didn't see from Noel was a jumper. He never even attempted one outside 12 feet of the rim, per Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.
Having shot just 52.9 percent from the free-throw line, Noel had good reason to stick to his strengths as a finisher inside.
Noel's inability to step out on the perimeter is what ultimately fuels the skeptics' argument that says he can't play power forward. And that's tough to argue, unless of course, Noel eventually develops that jumper.
He hasn't attempted many, but he's knocked in a few 15-footers between summer league and preseason. Noel's release actually looks pretty natural.
Realistically, don't expect Noel to start lighting up defenses as an inside-outside weapon. The ideal goal here is that he continues refining his offensive skills to the point where post-ups, mid-range jumpers and face-up dribble drives become a part of his every-game repertoire.
“I just want to fine-tune things,” Noel told Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com. “I want to lessen the turnovers and take good shots and make sure I am finding my teammates in the right spots.”
“You just see a little bit more each time you play,” coach Brett Brown told Lynam. “To me, he is finding his way."
Noel's offensive bread and butter will always come in the catch-and-finish game, whether it's off a drive-and-dump, a lob, a pick-and-roll or an offensive rebound. With his athleticism, size and length, he's just a glowing, high-percentage target around the rim.
But there's no question his skills are overly raw. As Sean Deveney of the Sporting News describes him, "With Noel, the athletic gifts are obvious, but the polish will have to be plentiful."
Still, based on what we've seen so far, I actually think he's added some polish since February 2013. Though it's only been around eight total exhibition games (between summer league and preseason), he's executed a few moves and plays we hadn't seem him execute before.
Look for Noel to continue experimenting with what he's added and fine-tuned and hopefully build on what's been a promising summer and early fall.