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By LARRY VAUGHT
He grew up admiring Kevin Garnett, a versatile NBA star who values defense, and was being compared to Bill Russell, perhaps the best defender in NBA history, when he was only midway through his high school career.
That’s why Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel says he can handle any comparison others wants to make between him and Anthony Davis, who led the Wildcats to the national title last season and was the top pick in the NBA draft.
“I definitely embraced that chance to follow him,” said Noel, the top-ranked player in many recruiting rankings in the 2012 class. “If you go anywhere else, you would not be following a great player. If you come right behind a great player, you are filling, like, a void that was left and have the opportunity to establish yourself as a great player rather than just going somewhere else and just being another big man.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari is already doing his best to downplay the comparisons to Davis.
“He shouldn’t be compared. Totally different. They are not even the same,” Calipari said. “Nerlens is going to give us a different type of game. Anthony understood how to compete on possessions. Nerlens is still learning. He will take possessions off. You can’t do that. What he is is a normal freshman.
“With Anthony, we forget where he was early in the year. Yeah, he could dunk balls and do all that, but he had absolutely no post game. He was shaky shooting free throws until the end, and he became a real good free throw shooter.
“Physically, couldn’t hold his position. He did stuff and looked good when we were running, but he came a long way as the year went on, and he was able to because the team was so good and it wasn’t totally on his shoulders.
“He was able to build some self-esteem and confidence as the year went on, and that’s what I am hoping for this kid (Noel). That’s why I like the fact that we do have seven guys that can lead us in scoring this year.”
DraftExpress.com analyst Matt Kamalsky confirms that Noel is viewed by many as a legitimate choice for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, even though he has yet to play a college game. He also believes Noel will have to deal with the Davis comparisons no matter what Calipari says.
“I expect Noel to have to deal with an undeservedly challenging set of expectations in the shadow of Anthony Davis, who is an unfair comparison for him at this point,” Kamalsky said.
“In his own right, Noel can be an terrific defensive player thanks to his ability to block shots. He’s going to benefit from playing for Calipari, who will inevitably be able to get him to compete on that end of the floor every game.
“A college strength and conditioning program should help him become a more capable one-on-one defender in the post, and consistent attention from the staff will hopefully improve his comfort level defending big men who want to face the rim away from the basket.
“He has the ability to make an impact on that end of the floor, but it may take him some time to consistently make the most of his talents.”
Those talents include blocking shots — some even suggested last year that he was a better shot-blocker than Davis — and Noel says he’s always had a passion for playing defense, which is one reason he admired Garnett.
“Not everybody can play defense. That is something I grew up playing and always wanted to do. I never really liked taking a lot of shots when I was young, but I always applied myself defensively,” he said. “You can never really do too many things to hurt your team on the defensive end, so that’s what I really applied myself to.”
That mentality is a reason some have compared him to Russell, who won 11 NBA championships in a 13-year career with the Boston Celtics that ended in 1969.
“I knew who he was,” Noel laughed and said. “Just a comparison to Bill Russel,l who won 11 (championship) rings, you don’t get into that. You make sure you stay focused and keep working on what you need to do as a player so you can make your own legacy in your career. But that’s a great compliment to have anyone even mention your name with him.”