What's Behind Nerlens Noel's Resurgence with the New York Knicks?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterApril 15, 2021

New York Knicks center Nerlens Noel (3) blocks a shot by Boston Celtics center Tristan Thompson (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Nerlens Noel is having a defensive season that scouts were picturing eight years and four NBA teams ago.

The New York Knicks and coach Tom Thibodeau have unlocked game-changing rim protection, something that's seemingly been masked or limited by unfortunate team fits and misevaluations from other organizations. 

It felt like the league had given up on Noel multiple times, once after his draft and again following his infamous rejection of a $70 million offer from the Dallas Mavericks.

Credit New York's front office for identifying a quality buy-low opportunity (one year, $5 million) and the coaching staff for getting the most out of it. Despite Mitchell Robinson's absence, the Knicks are third in the NBA in defense, with Noel leading the league in defensive box plus-minus and ranking second in block percentage behind Myles Turner. Opponents are shooting 60.2 percent against New York in the restricted area, the NBA's second-lowest mark. 

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

The eye test backs up the advanced numbers. Effort and a 7'4" wingspan have a lot to do with Noel's defensive presence in the paint. But it's his timing that's standing out most and elevating his effectiveness in rim protection.

It's like watching an MLB hitter in a hot zone who is seeing the ball better.

He's regularly challenging shots that appeared out of reach seconds before. He's blocking dunk attempts, not shying away from contact or fearing being put on a poster. He's accurately timing his jumps and making coordinated plays on the ball. 

Even Noel's 2.3 percent steal rate ranks in the top 15 in the NBA, and he's one of two players (along with Matisse Thybulle) averaging at least 2.8 deflections in under 25 minutes a game. He's turned up his activity level and nose for the ball to the highest levels of his career. 

But this defensive playmaking and disruption have always been there. Bleacher Report had Noel No. 1 on its 2013 mock draft board in January of that year, a few weeks before he tore his left ACL at Kentucky. 

He wasn't given a fair chance with the Philadelphia 76ers, the league's worst team at the time who drafted centers Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor after Noel's rookie season. The Mavericks recognized his value at one point, but Noel saw more before tearing a ligament in his thumb and missing 42 games. Dallas then chose to save their money for DeAndre Jordan and Noel went to the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he actually flashed similar glimpses of what the Knicks have seen this year.

Noel led the Thunder in defensive box plus-minus in consecutive seasons, but they'd already signed Steven Adams to a $100 million contract. 

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Some bad luck for Noel turned into a bargain for the Knicks, though the $5 million he's making for 2020-21 is still the most he's earned in any season. Now he's finally in a favorable situation (despite it presenting itself due to Robinson's unfortunate injury), starting at center for a vibrant, rising team that values his strengths and can live with his limitations. 

He seems to fit the Knicks locker room from a chemistry standpoint as well. President Leon Rose has made a clear effort to surround the young cornerstones with tough veterans willing to embrace mentorship roles or fluctuating minutes, a job description Noel accepted when he signed. 

Noel also just turned 27 years old this month, so it's not crazy to think he's entering his prime. Though Robinson is 23 with more theoretical upside, he's shown no offensive growth and questionable durability.

Noel hasn't been a threatening scorer, either, frequently dropping passes and avoiding eye contact with the hoop. He still similarly offers the Knicks' playmakers a big lob target and put-back threat. He isn't a post option or shooter, but a push shot (outside the restricted area) or short-corner jumper occasionally surface.

Rose will eventually have an interesting decision to make about how to handle Noel's free agency and Robinson's contract, which will be entering its final year in 2021-22 (team option). Opposing teams figure to be monitoring the situation as both big men are now attractive targets.

It's one of those dilemmas Rose isn't likely to lose sleep over right now. Noel is currently anchoring the potentially playoff-bound Knicks and the franchise is suddenly equipped with multiple quality options to build with at center.

Noel's rebirth has quietly become an NBA storyline and a subtle, key factor in New York's surprising record.