It's safe to say that the Philadelphia 76ers have a decent amount invested in Nerlens Noel. Unfortunately, because Noel tore his ACL in February while completing a chase-down block playing for The University of Kentucky, we won't see him against NBA competition until sometime this winter, at the earliest.
Until then, his college film will have to suffice. Luckily, Noel played for a school with the most basketball-crazed fan base in the country, and many of his full games are readily available on YouTube. I decided to give the exercise of reviewing his college tape a wise-ass name that doesn't make much sense, and away we go.
We'll move through Noel's freshman campaign in chronological order. His first college game was against The University of Maryland on a neutral floor.
Nov. 9, 2012: Kentucky 72, Maryland 69 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
Noel's Line: 4 points (2-6 shooting, 0-3 free throws), 9 rebounds, 0 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals, 3 personal fouls.
Leading up to the draft, much of the discussion about this game centered on the one-on-one matchup between Noel and the player eventually taken one spot ahead of him, Alex Len.
Len, who scored 23 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, unquestionably won that matchup. The former Ukrainian gymnast used an advanced post repertoire and more physically mature frame to get the better of his counterpart. Noel looked raw offensively and physically frail for the better part of the night. He also sat out an extended period at the end of the first half due to foul trouble.
After watching the full game though, I believe the matchup probably wasn't as one-sided as the two centers' lines would suggest. Noel did a lot of the things that (cliché alert!) don't show up in the box score. Again, make no mistake: This was not a good performance from Noel. But there were certainly some positives that point, assist, and rebounding numbers won't show. Specifically...
The Good, Pick and Roll Defense: From what I've read about him, Noel did good work this season aggressively hedging against ball screens. Clearly, that wasn't the game plan against the Terps, as Noel was repeatedly stationed under the foul line on pick and rolls. In effect, he was daring the ball-handler to take a pull-up jumper.
If this defensive scheme was in fact atypical for Kentucky, I can see why a change was made. If I had to guess, John Calipari saw Maryland's extremely poor guard play on film and said, "I'd love to force these guys, who aren't playmakers, to create offense against us. I bet they can't do it consistently enough."
Whatever the reasoning behind it, the strategy proved effective, as Maryland got very little offense from the pick and roll throughout the game. Notice how the guard who is defending the screen has one clear-cut job, to follow the ball-handler over the pick and chase him from behind.
Nobody executes this type of pick and roll defense better than the Indiana Pacers, who utilize their superb length to frustrate the hell out of opposing offenses. With 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert looming as a rim deterrent at the foul line and a wing chasing the dribbler from behind (Frank Vogel dubbed this "the rearview challenge"), the Pacers were essentially conceding a mid-range jumper or floater. Surrendering that shot, especially when it's rushed and taken off the dribble, is a win for the defense more times than not.
While Noel isn't the mammoth physical presence that Hibbert is, he's still an elite shot-blocking prospect who averaged 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes in college. If (and it's an if, this was one game against very bad guards) the versatility to play pick and rolls both aggressively (like the Heat do) and passively (Pacers) translates from college to the pros, Noel's defense becomes that much more valuable.
The Bad, Physicality: There's no getting around it: Noel got bullied in this game, and needs to improve both his upper and lower body strength.
One action that Kentucky and Noel particularly had trouble with was a simple baseline cross screen. Len and the rest of Maryland's frontline repeatedly established great post-up position on the opposite block after the Terps' smaller guards screened for them. While Kentucky's guards did absolutely nothing all game to stunt the action, Noel consistently struggled navigating through the screens, an indictment of his upper body strength. As for the lower body...
After one game's worth of footage, Noel feels sort of like Bizarro Elton Brand on the defensive end of the floor. While he is best used as a weak-side shot blocker, Noel's legs have to get stronger if he wants to improve as a post defender and more importantly, a rebounder. Cleaning up his fundamentals and staying low (to employ a stronger base) wouldn't hurt either.
The Good and The Bad, Noel's Hands: Noel's 2.6 steals per 40 minutes places him among the top 10 centers that Draft Express has charted in the category over the past decade. Evan Turner (and yours truly in pickup games) is an example of a player who has a tendency to foul when trying to knock the basketball out of an offensive player's hands. Even though I've only watched one game, Noel's numbers suggest that he has a chance to be much more successful at that particular skill. Having a 7-foot-4 wingspan sure doesn't hurt in this department, either.
All that said, I wasn't impressed with his ability to catch the ball in traffic, whether it was rebounding or securing teammates' passes. Enough times, there were plays where, even if Noel eventually corralled the ball, he initially didn't catch it cleanly a la Samuel Dalembert. This will be something to monitor going forward.
Well, that's about it for the Maryland game. Remember that anything that I said about Noel which sounds definitive can and probably will change by the next installment. I'm thinking about once a week on these bad boys, and hopefully I'll be able to cover two games in the next one (Duke and Notre Dame). The goal will be for these posts to build on one another so we can end up with the best idea of Noel's game possible.
Disagree with something said in this post? Excited about Noel's prospects? Feel free to chime in right below here in the comments.