The way Nerlens Noel has been perceived as a basketball player has been an up-and-down ride. A Massachusetts native, Noel came out of high school as the number one rated prospect. His uncanny ability to protect the rim had every scout’s eyes wide open. Everyone expected Noel to go on to Kentucky, one of the most storied programs in college basketball, and perform extremely well. And this he did — until well, he tore his ACL. Noel went from being the projected Number 1 overall selection in the upcoming NBA Draft to questions rising if he would even be taken top-ten, due to his injury. The injury devastated Noel, who was exceeding expectations with the Wildcats. He had a 12 block performance early on and had Anthony Davis‘ single-season school-block record (which was set the year before) in his crosshairs.
After being taken 6th overall by the Pelicans, his draft rights were dealt to the tanking-76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.
In Philadelphia, Nerlens has found a home. He’s loved by the fans for his defense, hustle, and love for the game. It seems as if every time you watch the kid play, he’s improved in some distinct way.
After sitting out his first year in the league with his preexisting knee injury, Nerlens has really shined this year. Without surprise, he’s the standout defender we all expected. But he’s more than just that — a lot more.
Although he is renowned for his rim protection, Noel’s defense still remains extremely underrated. I don’t want to make the typical, cliche writer’s overreaction, but it’s hard not to in this case…
Nerlens Noel is having one of the best, if not the best, defensive Rookie-years ever.
He leads all rookies in steals and blocks, and is 10th and 6th in the NBA, respectively. His defensive numbers of 1.78 Steals per game and 1.9 blocks per game are flat-out gaudy. He doesn’t just happen to be a 6’11 guy who blocks some shots; he truly hustles and is committed to playing defense. The fact that he’s almost 7 feet tall and is top 10 in steals is absolutely unheard of (no other big man is inside the top 20).
Recently, Noel has started to pick it up even more on the defensive end. If he extrapolates his February defensive averages for the rest of this season, his defensive averages would both rise above 2.0. This would make him just the 4th player in NBA history to accomplish such a feat.
Additionally, he’s an extremely gifted passer, averaging 1.7 assists this year–an outstanding number for a rookie center. If Noel can increase his assists per game to 1.8 and his blocks to 2.3, he will join Tim Duncan as the only other player in NBA history to put up those numbers in their virgin campaign.
During such a horrid year for the Sixers, the main focus for every player needs to be to just improve. Noel has done this- and then some. Not known for his offensive prowess at all, Nerlens was thought to be an offensive liability at the next level. Noel took this notion and ran with it. His post-moves and offensive confidence literally grow by the game. His free throw percentage has increased nearly 10 percent since his days at Kentucky. Most importantly though, Noel likes playing defense and passing– two things every legendary frontcourt player ever has been able to do.
Now that I have properly hyped up the lanky big-man, let’s get into his (extremely realistic) quest for Rookie of the Year honors. Andrew Wiggins was one of the most coveted prospects in the last decade when he declared for the NBA Draft. He was even shouted out in the hook of a Drake song: “Draft day… A-Wiggins”, the fellow-Toronto native chants on the chorus. He didn’t shine as brightly as many expected at Kansas, but still, nonetheless, he was plucked number one overall and then subsequently traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. There, he seems to have found a definite home with a core of similarly-young players.
Is Wiggins really the clear-cut rookie of the year, or is he just the media’s poster-child right now?
If you remove the name and the hype and the handful of highlight dunks and moves, you see a player truly neck-and-neck with a player like Noel in the race for the Rookie of the Year. Wiggins’ 15.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game averages show a true star in the making, but they don’t make the ROY race a cakewalk. His average stat line should pale in comparison with Noel’s potentially-historic season.
Does Noel deserve the award over Wiggins? It’s debatable, but as long as it’s at least being debated over, Nerlens is getting some of the credit he deserves.
Perhaps Noel was born into the wrong decade. It’s as if he was meant to be banging with Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer down low. His affinity for protecting the rim and his late-80s high-top fade suggest he was meant for another era. Ah, the good old days of defense and great hair. Now all we need back is the mid-range jump-shot.
In a day and age where if you’re not breaking someone’s ankles or throwing in a dunk from five feet out you’re not even noteworthy, Noel has made a name for himself. What makes Noel such an asset is he has no desire to be flashy, or score, or do anything self-centered whatsoever. Unless you turn on a 76ers game, which I know is brutal at the moment, you can’t appreciate how good Nerlens Noel truly is. Sam Hinkie has taken some risks during his tenure in Philadelphia (getting Noel was a risk in the first place), but getting rid of Noel anytime soon would make him completely brainless.