Since Jahlil Okafor was drafted, a trade involving him, Nerlens Noel, or
Joel Embiid has been inevitable. This past year was used as an "experiment" to see if the two bigs could play together, but realistically they were competing for a spot next to Embiid. With 2 years having gone by since he was drafted, the Sixers seem to have a better understanding of Joel's health. So now, the Sixers are shopping both Noel and Okafor. With the writing on the wall, I’ve decided to take a possible last stand for Team Noel. So I’m going to attack some myths that arise about Nerlens; show how he’s shown improvement, has room to improve, and how he fits with the team going forward.
Let’s start with his bread and butter. There’s no need bring up stats that have been thrown around again and again, but it’s clear Nerlens is capable of anchoring a top NBA defense. Even while surrounded by below-average perimeter players, and paired with unfavorable front court partners.
His blocks and rim protection need no breakdown, it’s clear he can be an elite force there. What’s more interesting is how he blocks shots. Too often shot blockers try to swat the ball out of play, but it’s much more practical to keep the ball in play for yourself or a teammate to rebound:
Nerlens shows excellent control and is able to block shots while keeping them in play. Unfortunately, sometimes they end up in the hands of an opponent, but sometimes they can result in transition opportunities:
He also can send the ball out of play when there’s no teammate to recover and/or it’s time to send a message:
Like most shot blockers, he has a bad habit of jumping the gun and ending up in the air before the shot is taken and giving up an easy basket to his man:
Being an active jumper is good for intimidation, but without another shot blocker it’s unwise to go in the air so frivolously. Here’s a good example of Nerlens staying disciplined and remaining on the ground to contest and rebound:
That intimidation doesn't just show up around the rim. It allows Nerlens to affect shots or stop actions without actually contesting shots. Some examples are causing guys to lose handle or make a bad pass when they see him go to the rim, or prevent back doors and hand offs:
A unique aspect of his defensive game is his ability to steal the ball. Opponents with weak handles or who are weak with the ball are easy prey for Noel’s poke steals due to his insanely quick hands:
Sometimes he will swipe at the ball instead of moving his feet to stay in front or recover:
Needs to stay away from this unless there is another rim protector in the paint. Has shown the ability to stay with guards, small forwards, and quicker power forwards using his foot speed.
He’s also great at anticipation steals (and has been much better at finishing them in transition after his Shaqtin a Fool moment early in the season):
He also deflects passes at a high rate. With his quick hands and length it’s hard to get basketballs around him:
This picture above was actually called a kick ball. I don’t fault the ref, it took me a long time to pause the video at the right time to get that screen grab. His hands are sometimes too quick for real time.
Even more so than his rim protection, Nerlens’ best defensive ability is his prowess on the pick and roll. With his quick feet, hands, length, and shot blocking ability he is a menace as a pick and roll defender and is capable of all types of pick and roll defense:
His long arms allows him to sag off of players, and still affect shots and get deflections with his length. This is best used when switched onto guards who can shoot and drive, as it gives Nerlens space to move his feet if they attack:
There are some aspects of defense he needs to improve on. His closeouts at times can leave a lot to be desired. Even though a lazy closeout with his length is still enough to contest a shot, better and/or taller shooters will still make their shots:
However, has shown that with good effort can have impressive closeouts inside the arc:
And outside the arc:
Needs to consistently give max effort on closeouts, especially if he is going to be patrolling the paint while his man is on the perimeter.
I’ve seen a lot of false narratives about Noel’s 1 on 1 defense like "he’s below average" or "any physical center can abuse him". That’s incorrect. Nerlens has shown that he is more than capable of defending centers 1 on 1:
Noel’s true Achilles’ heel isn’t physical centers, but skilled ones. The obvious example from this year is Nikola Vucevic. His combination of low post moves and shooting gives Noel problems:
Good offensive centers are going to be able to get their shot off. In the clip above you see Noel contesting the shots well, but hooks and floaters are mostly unblockable and a good big can get it off regardless of defense. What Noel must do is to play physical instead of his usual technical style of defense:
As you can see, even a little bit of contact can throw off a hook/floater. Noel will need to get stronger to be able to bang consistently with guys like that.
Vucevic’s ability to put it on the floor makes Noel reluctant at times to close out on his shot, which accentuates one of his defensive weaknesses:
Noel is also guilty of the occasional mental lapse defensively:
And his transition D hasn’t been as devastating as it once was since his ACL injury, sometimes reluctant to go full speed or elevate to get the chase down block:
Still, when committed can be a force in transition defense:
When engaged he can take over possessions defensively taking on multiple defensive assignments:
I see a lot about how Noel isn’t unique and can be replaced, but how many players, let alone bigs, can recognize the mismatch on the right wing, go double, then beat the pass to the left wing and poke way the ball away like he did in that GSW clip?
So while he is not a perfect defender, most of his issues can be corrected with more disciplined technique, increased strength and IQ, and improvement on what he’s already good at. These are all things that should progress naturally with age and experience. His true defensive impact won’t show up on any metric available to the public. If he does continue to progress, there’s no doubt in my mind DPOY honors are in his future.
Offense is the major flaw people refer to when they begin to cap Nerlens’ ceiling. More specifically, his hands and overall coordination on offense. Even though it’s been proven you don’t need offensive production from your center to be successful, an extremely poor offensive player can be detrimental to his team and negatively affect the player’s positional versatility. In Nerlens’ case, both of those are extremely important for his value to the Sixers. So let’s look at his offense this season.
Let’s start with one of the rare plus skills Nerlens came into the NBA with on offense, passing. One area I think he showed flashes in last year. His vision has always been good, but his delivery and decision making still need to progress. However, he can make any pass you need from multiple places on the court.
Bounce/entry passes (I’d go on record saying he’s the best on the team last year at the entry pass to Okafor. Jahlil doesn’t even have to move his hand with Noel’s accurate passes):
Passes to cutters:
Passes from inside to outside:
However, sometimes his hands don’t agree with his vision and he will throw off target passes even without contact:
Noel needs to continue to improve this part of his game as it’s the easiest way to being a plus offensive player for him. Still, he’s willing and skilled passer, and his teammates move around expecting him to make plays.
Another plus offensive skill for him doesn’t need a lot of breaking down is his transition offense. Although the team was rarely able to take advantage of it, Nerlens has shown elite, freak show speed in transition that allows him to get behind everyone in transition:
I’m imagining him running in transition with fellow freaks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and drooling. He is even able to finish transition plays post-stride off vertical once his teammates catch up:
It’s no secret that Noel doesn’t have the best hands. In his rookie season it was almost impossible to get Noel the ball unless it was an alley oop. However, this doesn’t make him completely ineffective as an offensive player as plenty bigs in the NBA contribute with bad hands. It’s all about how you get them the ball.
For example, Nerlens’ hands are not going to allow him to catch passes in traffic:
Low bounce passes are also a no go:
This can be a problem, however better passers are able to get the ball to Nerlens. His hands are much improved and he’s able to catch more types of passes:
In the clip above, you see him catching high bounce passes, dump offs, bullet passes, and even caught a stray ball one handed. These are passes he couldn’t catch before, last year MCW basically had to shove the ball into his chest for him to complete a simple dump off play. Now it’s a staple of his offense. His hands still need to improve, or at least be consistently good as they can be now, to become a reliable offensive player. However, his progression has been encouraging.
Directly related to his hands is his dribbling ability. He has improved there too, but too often he will dribble without knowing what he should do and lose the ball:
He also needs to eliminate this loose dribbling that will make him an easy target for active hands:
When he is decisive, he can make plays for others off the dribble:
Or, he can get shots for himself:
For someone who came into the league an offensive zero, his dribble moves impress me. Several times in the clip above you see him taking on good defensive PFs like Aaron Gordon and Anthony Davis off the dribble. His quickness allows him to get by most defenders, especially slower bigs, which is 90% of bigs in the NBA. It’s encouraging to see him get to where he wants with dribbling. What’s also clear in the clip above is the less dribbles the better. With his athleticism and length, he should be able to take one dribble and make a move. Of course, there are downsides to picking the ball up after one dribble:
Much like his teammate Jerami Grant, players with poor handle often pick up their dribble and take advantage of the two steps available to get to the rim. Without a clear path or plan in mind, it will often result in a bad shot, losing the ball, or a charge.
His mid range game is still developing. Even while he misses, his shots aren’t too off target:
His misses are often out of rhythm, and poorly selected pull ups. When you see him shoot in rhythm his shots are more accurate. He shows promise as a pick and pop player as well if he can continue to develop this part of his game:
His floater is probably his best offensive move that he can create himself. It’s a move he even showed last year briefly, and he should go to it more:
Even his misses show touch that is absent from his other moves:
He even feels comfortable doing this move off the dribble, or from longer distances. It can be a great alternative if he never finds his mid range shot:
Another move Noel likes to go to is a hook shot. However, this is a move he needs to work on immensely. Unlike his floater, there is rarely good touch on these shots and his technique is not consistent:
Is able to make them, but needs to pick a technique and master it or remove it from his game completely:
With his slight frame, a lot of his moves can be completely thrown off with contact. He does a good job having patience and using fakes to get off shots without contact:
Needs to take advantage of this when crowded under the basket to draw a foul instead of putting up a bad shot or just pass:
Nerlens has a bad habit of not going up strong. With his lack of touch and finesse, and his abundance of athleticism, there’s no reason he should be going up weak. It often leads to misses and players blocking him who normally wouldn’t be able to:
Has great success when going up strong:
Even if there is eventual contact, must continue to attack strongly and will draw fouls:
There is times when going up strong isn’t an option, but hasn’t shown good touch when drawing contact:
He often throws it up harder than he needs to when he feels contact, but has progressed and shown a lighter touch after contact even with misses:
Even with his limitations as an offensive player, he is great on the roll due to his athleticism and ability to catch and finish above the rim.
He can slip the screen and get behind the big for easy oops:
In the last part of the clip, Stauskas throws a low lob, but you can see Nerlens had a clear advantage over much a smaller Jared Dudley.
Or he can make even minimal contact to allow the ball handler to turn the corner and make the opposing big commit to the ball handler so he can roll to the basket:
Even though he needs little to no contact on the pick to be successful, bigger players will run through his screens leaving them ineffective:
He needs to improve his strength to be a consistent pick and roll threat against all defenders. His roll ability makes him the perfect candidate for the spread pick and roll, which is a scheme Brett Brown chose to use a lot, especially when closing games. Basically, the big will slip the screen and if there are 3 shooters besides the two PnR participants, there will either be a free lane to roll due to space from shooters as seen in certain clips above, or it will draw a 3rd defender like shown below:
That wasn’t technically the spread pick and roll because Jerami and his man was in the paint, but the clip above still shows the desired effect of drawing that 3rd defender, even though Bogdanovic didn’t have to help.
He also generates a lot of his offense by just being in the right place at the right time. He is very good at being a lob option if his man steps up to help:
After breaking down Nerlens’ offense it’s clear what type of player he wants to be. A face up big who can take guys off the dribble, make plays with his passing, hit the mid range, and is a viable option in the pick and roll and pop. He will need to continue to improve all aspects of his game, but he has shown flashes of impressive offense. His improvements show in his improved eFG% (.462 to .522) and his TS% (.493 to .544) while be assisted slightly less (.672 to .669 % assisted). It’s a good sign to see tangible improvement, even if it’s not an astronomical jump as it shows upward progress. His offensive potential is higher than he gets credit for, and I look forward to seeing him develop into the player he wants to be.
One area he made a clear improvement in is his rebounding. All of his rebounding numbers stayed the same or improve slightly while playing significantly more minutes at PF. Which I credit to his improved hands and strength. At times last year he was unsure when to jump and had issues tracking boards and securing them. His issue was never in his explosiveness or ability to get up, just the technique. Now, he has a much better understanding and is securing rebounds with one hand:
This is a huge development for him because it allows him to use his other arm to keep players boxed out, using extension instead of power to box out. His offensive rebounding improved as well, and is a huge advantage when matched up against PF/smaller players:
Unlike his rookie season, he’s more willing to jump into the fray and fight for rebounds. Which is reflected in the monster jump to his contested defensive rebound win % from 29.5% to 42.1%:
Does a great job boxing out PFs/smaller players:
He’s able to box out and rebound against physical centers as well:
Nerlens’ issue with rebounding is against the super strong, super rebounders; the Drummonds, Whitesides, and Dwight Howards of the league:
They're able to push him off his mark to get the offensive rebound, and make it harder for him to just jump over the back and get offensive boards. To neutralize bigger players like that he’ll either have to front them, or never give up rebounding position which doesn’t allow him to be a menace defensively:
He will need to get stronger to be able to defend how he wants to while also bang against bigger guys.
His hands also don’t allow him to catch those random ricochet rebounds, and has a hard time securing 50/50 rebounds against other guys. Although, if his rebounding progression continues at it’s current rate he’ll be a premier rebounder soon enough.
Can he play PF?
This is probably the biggest concern for Noel’s future with the Sixers. Can he play PF? Some fans can’t fathom a player like him being fine with a bench role. Others see it as an excuse to trade him. Even though playing two inside the arc bigs isn’t unprecedented, Favors-Gobert and Griffin-Jordan do it successfully, this past season with Okafor make people believe that he isn’t able to play PF. Let’s see how he played the position.
First and foremost, you are what you defend. Out of the 3 centers, Nerlens is the only one that has shown he can competently defend PF. When on the perimeter, most of his assignments quickly pass the ball as options are limited over his length:
If they choose to attack, he’s able to use his foot speed to stay in front of perimeter players:
Usually PF are taller players and Nerlens is able to take advantage of their ball handling which due to their height is typically not tight, essentially making them almost completely ineffective when he’s guarding them:
As shown in the Defense portion above, his close outs need to improve so he can continue to intimidate at the rim as a PF. He also needs to be attentive to his man and be cautious of screens:
In that sense, Nerlens’ is like a new wing defender and gets caught ball watching and being too deep into the paint:
He needs to trust Okafor as a rim protector, and help on his man to secure the rebound just like Noel would expect if he were getting out of position to help. Although to be fair, Okafor hasn’t been a reliable rim protector:
Both players must be able to defend 4-5 to have an ideal front court pairing in case of switching assignments:
I believe that if paired with a true rim protector at center, Nerlens can be devastating defensively as the PF. With proper switching, there’s no reason that you can have two paint protectors patrol the paint.
The rebounding advantage should be obvious. In most of the offensive rebound clips above, they are over PFs/smaller defenders. There’s a narrative that an opposing team could just put a smaller player on Noel, but that gives him an significant advantage on boards. His rebounding rate as a PF would have him 20th out of 79 so in the above average percentile, while as a C he’d be tied for 42nd out of 61.
Okafor’s DR% with Noel on the floor 15.4%
Okafor’s DR% without Noel on the floor 19.5%
Noel’s DR% with Okafor on the floor 24.3%
Noel’s DR% without Okafor on the floor 20.8%
These stats show that Nerlens is at his greatest when there is another big to help box out. A 24.3% defensive rebounding rate would be good for 9th best for PF. Although Okafor isn’t necessarily a great rebounder in his own right, just being someone in front of the center allows Noel to be super effective on boards.
Offensively, it’s not as hopeless as it seems either. There’s a misconception that you have to be a certain type of offensive player to be a PF. However, in my opinion the PF is more of a utility position and you put whatever you can get an advantage out of it. In Nerlens’ case it would obviously be defense and rebounding. This doesn’t mean he’s bound to hurt the offense, or specifically the space of another post up big. He’s shown that he knows what to do when another big is posting up:
Usually, the person doubling Okafor would be the man of a perimeter player who couldn’t shoot. Whenever Nerlens’ man doubled he cut to the rim or got in position to offensive rebound. Okafor missed opportunities to get Noel the ball constantly throughout the season. Here’s an example below:
Another post up big doesn’t necessarily neutralize Noel’s ability to PnR either. As long as they are both conscious of where another is there can be successful plays. For example here Okafor posts up drawing his man to the bottom-right of the paint, effectively taking out the 3rd defender from the pick and roll:
Noel must figure out what to do/where to be when another big is trying to roll:
His positioning only makes sense if he thinks Jahlil is going to pick and pop.
Same for Okafor:
As a skilled offensive center, even without a reliable 3 pointer Lopez is hesitant to leave him alone on the perimeter. However, Jahlil crashes way too early considering his man was with him outside. Could have the same effect as the spread pick and roll. You can see how PnR plays look with good spacing with two bigs below:
With three shooters surrounding them, they have plenty of space for Noel to slip the screen. He’s wide open, with Sullinger at the mercy of Jahlil and himself. Poor playmaking/PnR play killed that play.
They can also take advantage of big to big PnR to have switches if they choose to defend Noel with a smaller player:
Here’s another example of using sets to get mismatches in a sloppy horns set (sloppy isn’t a type of horns set, I think? It was just sloppy/lackluster):
The presence of both post players in the paint can draw a lot of attention allow good shots for shooters:
Here there is as many as 5 opponents in the paint at once, with three shooters outside. This is where Jahlil draws criticism as a selfish and/or unaware player as plenty of options outside.
As Nerlens continues to improve his offensive game he’ll be a better option for the PF role. However, if he doesn’t improve much more than he is now, he can still be very effective. What he’d have to do is stop taking all these shots he’s been allowed to take during these developmental years, and be reduced to a garbage man role. This doesn’t mean he is doomed to be a crux on the offense, Tristan Thompson in a similar role posted the highest offensive rating on the Cavs this past season at an insane 130.
By doing the dirty work, and being a roll option he can be a very efficient offensive player. Noel now at 22 is much better offensively than TT at 25, and a lot of that has to do with him being able to do all these things these past 2 years. He's been allowed to truly experiment and grow, where as on a practical team they wouldn’t have their offensively inept center doing so much. So I can see him being TT 2.0 on offense, and much much better defensively.
So, if I had to give a reason for why the pairing didn’t work I’d give three:
1) The perimeter players around them weren’t going to make it work. You need at least 2 knock down shooters, and a playmaker who can at least hit the mid range or finish at an elite rate (but ideally can shoot as well). The Sixers were able to put that ideal line up briefly, until Ish Smith’s shooting came down to earth.
2) Chemistry, they didn’t seem to develop any chemistry at all. The only Jahlil to Noel oop we saw was in the preseason, and that was very disappointing considering the opportunities he had and the supposed ability and willingness of Jahlil as a passer. It’s hard to blame them, as it’s seems sort of redundant to make each other look better or develop chemistry with someone who you are basically competing with. Although, the assist numbers will tell you if your eyes deceive you, that Noel was much more willing to pass to Okafor than the other way around.
3) No significant advantage. Neither player excelled at the same thing, so you didn’t kill guys on glass, inside, or defensively with the two working together. They often just got in each other’s way. Like for example below, usually having two bigs in the paint would be an advantage defensively, but with Okafor’s lack of defensive ability he would've been better of letting Noel have that space:
I expect the partnership with Embiid, even for Okafor, to go over much more smoothly than the pairing did this past year based on all three of those factors improving.
So that’s my really long break down of Nerlens Noel. I think it’s a myth that he hasn’t improved, or that he has no room to improve any further. What’s apparent through all of his weaknesses is he needs to improve his strength, maturity, mentality, and technique. These things all come with age, and if Nerlens continue to progress I see him as a star player. With all that said, I hope he is the one that stays, and if he isn’t we get a decent return for a player with the potential he has.