All-10 Nerlens Noel, Part Two

Take it easy, Kelly. - Kevin C. Cox

We look how Noel did in Kentucky's marquee early-season matchup against the loaded Duke Blue Devils.

Last week, we started and explained the "Nerlens Noel: All-10" series by putting Kentucky's season opening matchup against Maryland under the microscope. Make sure to check that post out first if you haven't seen it. Today, we'll look at another of Noel's early season games, this one against a college basketball blue blood: Duke.

Nov. 13, 2012: Duke 75, Kentucky 68, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA

Noel's Line: 16 points (5-11 shooting, 6-8 free throws), 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, 4 steals, 3 personal fouls.

For the middle of November, this was an extremely high-level college game. In fact, so well-played that it was impossible not to wonder while watching how the heck such a talented Kentucky team, super-young and seemingly way ahead of schedule at the beginning of the season, didn't qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

To hang with Duke on a neutral floor is pretty impressive. The Blue Devils boasted an experienced lineup that included four capable three-point shooters, including senior snipers Seth Curry (.44 3P%) and Ryan Kelly (.42 3P%), playing four-around-one with new Brooklyn Net Mason Plumlee patrolling the middle. Not only was the personnel good, the guy on the sidelines isn't half-bad either. Coach K runs some great stuff, and his players execute it well (4th best offense in all of college hoops according to the excellent KenPom).

As the line would suggest, Noel had an all-around nice game, yet his counterpart shot 7-8 from the field for 18 points. Even with Plumlee's uber-efficiency, I'd argue that they largely played each other to a standstill, maybe with a slight edge to Noel. Why? Well, for one reason, Plumlee turned the ball over five times, and this was largely Noel's doing.

It's weird to think of big men as disruptive perimeter defenders in the way that Avery Bradley and Tony Allen are viewed, but on this night, Noel certainly qualified as one. As to be expected, the seasoned Blue Devils were mostly comfortable operating their offense (whether it was Curry running off baseline double screens, 1-4 sets, etc.) with one notable exception: When Mason Plumlee became involved in a "Horns" set.

At all levels of basketball, but especially in the NBA where the pick and roll is king, Horns is a very popular offensive set. Not only does it give the point guard the option of two initial ball screens from the big men above the foul line, the set's floor spacing provides a number of misdirection options. It's hard enough to guard a ball screen, but it's much harder to defend one when the offensive players are already moving.

One of those simple misdirection options involves throwing the basketball to a big man and running a dribble handoff, the equivalent of a side pick and roll, with one of the players originally stationed in the corner. But when a team can't even enter the ball to their big man, as Duke often couldn't against Kentucky, these plays have no hope. I don't know how well Noel's sick steal rate will transfer to the pros, but I do think he'll still be a much better perimeter defender than the majority of the players he guards are dribblers. If that assumption holds true, opposing coaches may think twice about using their bigs as offensive facilitators if Noel is guarding them.

Offensively, Noel did some good things, yet I thought for much of the game he wasn't utilized correctly. Mostly this came out of necessity; Kentucky was playing shorthanded without their point guard Ryan Harrow, and in his place, John Calipari ran a ton of offense through Noel at the top of the key. Noel is sneakily a pretty good passer, but not nearly a point forward-type like his new teammate Royce White was in college.

After two games, I find myself clamoring for more Archie Goodwin-Noel high pick and rolls, which you see in the first two plays of the video. With one of college's most prolific stretch fours in Wiltjer stationed beyond the arc, it seems like Calipari could turn the explosive Goodwin loose like he has with so many of his great guards over the past decade. The floor spacing is certainly there when Wiltjer plays.

Grantland's Zach Lowe, who I reference in everything that I write, had an interesting point in his DeMarcus Cousins piece from the other day. In it, Lowe wrote about the enigmatic Cousins, "Maximum-salaried players should at least be competent enough on defense to willingly execute a rule-based scheme..."

This got me thinking about Noel, not in the context of a max contract, but just in general. To me, even with strength and skill improvement, he doesn't seem like the type of big who'll ever dominate and sustain an offense* like Cousins has the talent to do. In fact, I think it's the opposite: The Sixers are betting on Noel to be the Bizarro-Boogie, a defensive anchor whose screening and finishing ability won't move the needle offensively, but won't hurt the team on that end of the floor either.

*Remember, I've watched two games! I fully realize that these statements could change in either direction.

Noel didn't play a perfect game by any means. His lack of strength was apparent in a few situations, like when fighting for position on the block against Plumlee or going up for rebounds with Duke backup forward Josh Hairston. Also, his help defense left a lot to be desired on a couple of possessions, particularly when he stayed too close to Plumlee or Hairston while off the ball. I want to focus on his shot blocking, though.

Duke scores on all of these possessions, and I'm not showing them because I think that they're all Noel's fault. Kentucky, who finished 77th in the country in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency, frankly had a lot of bad defenders in front of their rim protector. More than anything, Curry's second-half success against Noel shows the fickle nature of shot-blocking. Even when Noel alters the first two shots, Curry gets the ball over his hands, and with a group of poor instinctual Kentucky defenders, that works out just like a pass. Nobody helps Noel with his man, and Hairston scores four easy points.

This will be something to definitely monitor going forward, how aggressively Noel goes for blocks and his approach in help defense.

Additional Notes/Nonsense:

  • Good to see Sonja Curry again. She's on the Mount Rushmore of "Mothers/Wives that TV cameras pan to in the stands all of the time" right now with Flo Allen, Amanda Enfield, and someone else I'm forgetting.
  • Dick Vitale, who called both the Maryland and Duke games, must have said "You better beat Kentucky now, because they'll be great in March" over 1,000 times. Not that I would've disagreed at the time, but it became funnier and funnier every time he said it. I wonder if Robert Morris was listening?
  • I enjoy Coach K #confessanunpopularopinion

Finally, this last play makes me feel good about Noel's future, particularly his mental makeup. Watch his reaction after making the great block, where he's accepting the blame for turning the ball over in the first place. That's a good sign. Not a bad block, either.

Next week, we'll look at the Notre Dame game and maybe Baylor as well. Again, feedback is welcome. See something you disagree with? Let me have it, but just keep in mind, I'm only on my second game of watching Noel.

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