Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel entered college hoops this season as the next Anthony Davis, the next shot blocking machine, the next one-and-done #1 pick (projected top-2 draft pick this summer by virtually everyone), the next John Calipari recruit who makes a mockery of being a student-athlete but nonetheless leads the Wildcats to top contender status.
Unfortunately Noel is in the news right now because he left Tuesday's blowout loss to Florida with a hyperextended knee that looked and sounded awful. It's unknown quite yet how this will affect his draft status or long-term future in the game, but now's as good a time as any to look back at what he's demonstrated in 24 games as a freshman, and what this might mean for his contributions as a pro.
Before arriving on UK's campus, the word on Noel was that he might be an even better shot blocker than Davis, but that he also owned an extremely raw offensive game and was a bit underwhelming as a rebounder. Before facing Florida, Noel was blocking a national best 4.5 shots a game, very similar to Davis' 4.7 last season, and he even bested the current Hornets' rookie by swatting a team record 12 in a single contest just a few weeks ago.
Offensively, he isn't doing much to show that he's a threat on that end of the floor, but he finishes well on open lobs and was completing 59% of his attempts, although he has only attempted a team sixth-best 7.0 shots/game, shooting just 1 and 2 shots in two of his last four games before Tuesday. With the dearth of real centers in the league right now, a defensive-minded big man who isn't a real part of the game plan on offense but who can routinely down 4 of 7 shots off pick-and-rolls is considered fine, although thinking of him as a #1 pick starts to sound a little far-fetched.
His pre-college reputation as a passive rebounder doesn't look, at first, to be entirely true as he's pulling down a rather impressive 9.6 boards a night in 32 minutes. A couple things we need to consider in order to properly contextualize this number are a) his offensive boards, since they're the harder ones to get and consequently tell us more about his true rebounding ability, and b) how well he grabs them in big games or against good competition. That first point is rather easy to judge; he's recording 2.8 offensive boards a night, a number that's comparatively low when looking at the nation's other elite rebounders, even those grabbing less total (of the 15 next-best rebounders below Noel nationally, only 4 average less offensive boards per game).
How well he grabs them in big games or against good competition is a little trickier since UK has fallen so far below expectations this season. Beginning the year ranked third, with hopes of winning another title on the backs of a team made up of many prominent freshmen, the Wildcats lost 3 of their first 7 and still aren't a lock to make the tournament. During those first 7 contests, Noel outrebounded Duke's Mason Plumlee (projected 10 to 15 pick) 8-3 in a loss, was outrebounded by Maryland's Alex Len (projected top 10 pick) 12-9 in a win, was outrebounded by Notre Dame's Jack Cooley (possible late second-rounder) 11-7 in a loss, and outrebounded Baylor's Isaiah Austin (projected top 10 pick) 16-5 in a loss. No real pattern, so not sure what to make it of it other than he's inconsistent.
Since then, the following note-worthy things have happened: Noel had a game-high 8 rebounds in a close loss to Louisville (although his overall impact wasn't very good, and 3 much shorter Cardinals each recorded 7 boards), was outplayed by “lesser” teammate Willie Cauley-Stein and arguably outplayed by Vanderbilt's Shelby Moats in a close UK win, has had two really good games against Texas A&M (who have no NBA prospects) in a big loss and an OT win, could not outplay Florida's two possible second round big men (Patric Young and Erik Murphy) in a blowout loss, had a big game on the boards and blocking shots in a close loss to Alabama, and was pretty well outplayed in the paint by both an opponent and a teammate in a close win over LSU. Again, no real pattern or consistency. He rarely has the biggest impact in important wins, and he often plays great when his team loses to supposedly inferior competition. Hmmm, not exactly the signs of a true game changer who actually has an effect on, you know, the game.
All in all, there's no denying that Noel is a big-time shot blocker who puts everything into his defense, but with a lacking one-on-one game that at best might develop into something in between Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden on the low-usage/high-efficiency scale, and a presence on the boards and in the paint that is all over the place and has no correlation with wins or losses, one has to wonder if Noel has anything more to offer than Charlotte project Bismack Biyombo (who's better on the offensive glass than Noel), especially now that Noel has already sustained one massive knee injury and his presence hasn't been able to keep Kentucky relevant.