By LARRY VAUGHT
Nerlens Noel was never touted as being the offensive player that Anthony Davis was for Kentucky last year when he swept the national player of the year awards and even won an Olympic gold medal after helping UK win a national championship.
However, Noel is having an extremely productive freshman season for the Wildcats. Noel is averaging 10.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.7 blocks, 2.6 steals and 1.7 assists per game and shooting 57.1 percent from the field. Those numbers have had some like ESPN NBA draft analyst Chad Ford projecting Noel as the top pick in the June draft just as Davis was last year.
“Noel has been very good, especially on the defensive end,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “He is coming along nicely, and has shown terrific athletic ability and instincts. His productivity has been very good, and he keeps making progress. I think he has been among the best freshmen in the country.
“His activity level and high work rate impress me. Noel plays really hard, and is very active on the defensive end and on the glass. He is averaging close to 10 rebounds per game, he blocks shots and gets steals and deflections. He has the ability to protect the rim, not quite in the same way as Anthony Davis did, but still in a very valuable manner.”
Chris Dortch of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook thinks Noels has “played as well as can be expected” trying to follow what Davis did last year.
“I think he does a lot of things well and could eventually be a solid offensive player. He would help his cause if he could make more free throws,” Dortch said.
Noel had 15 points, 11 rebounds, a career-high six assists, career-high seven blocks and four steals Saturday in UK’s Southeastern Conference loss to Texas A&M. He’s now had at least six rebounds in every game and has had two or more blocks in eight straight games. He’s also 32-for-44 (72.7 percent) from the field in the last eight games.
How much could Noel improve offensively by March? Last year Davis expanded his offensive game dramatically in February and March.
“Noel is not polished as an offensive player, and doesn’t yet have reliable post moves to where he can get and hold position on the low block, be thrown the ball and make the right move to score, get fouled or both,” Bilas said. “Right now, he is playing off of penetration, offensive stickbacks and only occasionally gets the ball in a position to do something with it.
“I like how he has a positive assist-turnover ratio, too. There aren’t many big men that have more assists than turnovers. I do think he will continue to get better, and his game will continue to improve. However, I would not expect him to be (Akeem) Olajuwon by March. That wouldn’t be fair to him. Noel is a very good young player that is getting better and better, but he still needs to be allowed to develop at his own pace.”
Can he carry a team in March in postseason play?
“Not in the way that question usually means it, no. I don’t see Noel as a Carmelo Anthony-type or Danny Manning-type player. He is a valuable piece of a greater whole,” Bilas said. “For Kentucky to have great success in March and advance to the second weekend (of the NCAA Tournament), the point guard position has to be solidified.
“No team wins without good interior play, but no team wins without steady guard play, either. The best teams, championship teams, have both.”
Dortch says Noel simply has to keep making “daily improvement” like he has been doing until March.
“It’s nothing more complex than that. Daily improvement seems to be the norm at Kentucky under John Calipari. His players seem to peak as the season progresses and I would expect the same from him,” Dortch said.
Calipari could see Noel emerging as UK’s team leader based on the way he’s played in games providing he makes one change.
“Got to practice that way. Can’t just do it in games. Have to practice every day and have everybody know that you’re preparing yourself to be great. And as he does that, yeah, he could be one of those guys (to lead the team),” Calipari said.
Both Bilas and Dortch can see Noel potentially be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“First, he has a lot to offer as a prospect, especially on the defensive end. He does not yet have the body for the NBA, but he has tools, and he plays really hard, which not all young big men do,” Bilas said. “Second, the draft is unusually weak this year. One has to ask, if not Noel, then whom? Clearly, this is not 2003 when LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh and Wade were among the first five selections.”
“He’s in the mix. Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA has started to play at a high level and will be under consideration, too,” Dortch said.