The Evolution of Nerlens Noel
The 2015-2016 NBA season for the 76ers has revolved around Rookie Jahlil Okafor, the arrival of Jerry Colangelo, the return of Ish Smith, and the drudgery of only 8 wins through February.
However, what has been overlooked, is that since his arrival at the University of Kentucky in 2012, Nerlens Noel has evolved his game on the court to the point where now his ceiling of potential may be higher than any player the 76ers have drafted over the last few years.
Arriving in Kentucky by way of Tilton High School in New Hampshire, Noel was compared to Marcus Camby be his coach John Calipari. Before a knee injury ended his lone season at Kentucky, Noel finished 6th in the NCAA with 106 blocks per game. He averaged 4.4 blocks, 2.1 steals, and 9.5 rebounds per game for the Wildcats. However, the combination of his injury along with his lowly 10.5 points per game average at the collegiate level caused Noel to drop in the 2013 NBA Draft to 6th overall.
In that draft, the following players where picked ahead of him:
1. Anthony Bennett (Cleveland)
2. Victor Oladipo (Orlando)
3. Otto Porter (Washington)
4. Cody Zeller (Charlotte)
5. Alex Len (Phoenix)
Even though New Orleans drafted him, they almost immediately flipped him to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holliday.
Noel missed the entire 2013-2014 season to rehab from his knee injury as well as put some muscle on his lanky frame. Before the draft many scouts compared him to Ben Wallace: an athlete who is talented defensive player with no offensive skills.
But Noel has changed the narrative on his career. In college he averaged 52.9 percent from the Free Throw line but in the NBA Noel has averaged 60.8 percent as a Free Throw shooter. Also his Field Goal percentage as improved in just two NBA seasons, rising from 42.6 percent his rookie season to 53.4 percent in his second season. He is also averaging 2 more shots per game as a Pro compared to his time in college
The defensive skills haven't gotten left behind due to Noel's new offensive skills as he is ranked in top 15 in NBA in both Steals and Blocks per game statistics. Even his Analytical Metrics are impressive: Noel's Player Efficiency Rating is 16.6 (NBA League Average is 15) and Noel has a 3.2 Defensive Box Plus/Minus, which is ranked 8th best in the NBA in 2015-2016 season.
While Noel's Rebounds per game and Blocks per game numbers have dropped a couple tenths due to his use at Power Forward instead of Center this season, his Points Per Game rose from 9.9 to 11.1 thanks to his more efficient shooting. Noel is more effective on the defensive end as a Center in the NBA. If he continues to work hard to improve his all-around game as well as hit the weight room to get stronger, you could see a player who averages in his peak 14 points, 14 rebounds, 2 Blocks and 2 Steals per game.
The question is will Nerlens Noel be starting at Center for the 76ers when he hits the prime of his career? With Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid both expected to return from injuries in 2016-2017, only time will tell if Noel continues to be one of the Sixers' "Big Men of the Future" or if he becomes another talented player that Philadelphia uses to parlay for "assets".
I know one thing for sure, Noel has turned out to be a better player in the NBA than Anthony Bennett, Cody Zeller, and Alex Len. All those guys were drafted ahead of Noel because they were healthy going into the Draft and were expected to be better offensive players. Yet its Noel who is averaging more Points Per Game than all those guys.