Posted: 10:49 a.m. Tuesday, June 4, 2013
By Glenn Logan
When Nerlens Noel announced he would be "taking [his] talents to" the University of Kentucky, hearts broke all over Washington DC, as Georgetown really hoped to land Noel. But the Kentucky logo shaved into his high-top fade told the tale that most outside the nation's capital expected -- Noel would be a Wildcat.
Let's take a look at Nerlens' time at Kentucky.
Noel was late getting to UK because of some summer school that he had to finish up in Tilton, New Hampshire. Most will recall that Noel reclassified from 2013 to 2012, and by doing so, had to take an accelerated schedule of classes in addition to summer school to qualify for this most recently completed college basketball season.
Everyone at Kentucky knew Noel was raw, but explosively athletic. He arrived a little out of shape, and in the very early part of the season, Willie Cauley-Stein actually impressed a little more. But Noel quickly became a force on defense, and became known not just for his athleticism and defensive ability, but for his heart. Noel was the player last year who gave 100% from tip to horn, and his passion and heart quickly endeared him to the Wildcats faithful.
Noel will be remembered for two things: His iconic flat-top hairdo with the Kentucky logo shaved into the back, and for going down with injury in a season where he was the one completely indispensable player on the team, resulting in Kentucky missing the NCAA tournament.
The unforgettable moment for Kentucky fans was Noel's injury, not for the fact of it, but for the way it happened.
Kentucky was playing the Florida Gators in Gainesville, and Florida was kicking our butts. The Gators dominated both offensively and defensively, and while Kentucky was gamely trying to pull back into the contest after having been down as many as 19 points, Noel lost the ball to Mike Rosario on a post-up with 8:03 left in the game and Kentucky down 12.
Rosario sailed down the court with only 90 feet between him and a layup. Noel sprinted after him, ran him down, blocked his layup attempt, and landed awkwardly, tearing the ACL in his left knee. As I remember it, Noel was the only Wildcat who crossed half-court on that play.
Noel refused to give up on the play, and that's just who he is. He knew he could get that shot, and he did. It was just unfortunate bad luck that cost him the rest of the season, but that kind of effort typified not just what Noel could do, but what he was willing to do.
There is very little in the coverage that is wrong. Everyone who has seen Noel play understands that he is a raw player of remarkable athleticism. Everyone knows that his offensive game is practically nonexistent, and that he's a great shot blocker, and that he suffered an ACL tear.
There are three things that get almost no attention, but should. Noel's good hands are known, but his hands are also incredibly quick. Noel led the Wildcats in steals last year, and had an unheard-of combination of blocks and steals. Very few big men steal the ball well, but Noel steals the ball well for any player in any position. If a big man exposes the ball in the post, Noel is quick enough to poke it lose without fouling. His ability to create loose balls and quickness when it comes free is more than just rare.
The second thing that doesn't get press is his heart. Noel is a really good person who loves helping out not just his teammates, but his community. He took a 7-year old leukemia patient, Kelly Mellon, with him to the Kentucky Derby festivities, and walked the red carpet with him. Noel is a young man with tremendous character, and a great teammate that will benefit any team he plays for.
Third and last, Noel has the extremely rare skill of being able to block shots with either hand equally well. I don't know of a single player besides Noel, college or pro, who can do that, and it matters ... a lot.
NBA fans will love his quickness, his athleticism, and his heart. Noel will never give up, never give in, and will give you everything he has for every minute he plays, and he has plenty to give.
What NBA fans will hate is watching Noel shoot the ball. He has among the most broken jumpshots that has ever before assailed my vision. He is working to improve it, and undoubtedly will, but I fear he will never be a particularly good shooter, he just lacks touch as well as the form.
Nerlens Noel falls under the rubric of "What might have been." In a way, John Calipari failed Noel and the team by recruiting too few players to surround him with, and wound up with major issues where some guys simply didn't have to do what Calipari wanted, and knew that they were going to play anyway. Along with the season-ending injury to Noel, it placed the Wildcats in a sad state that led to the eventual NIT first round loss.
Calipari learned his lesson as evidenced by 2013's class, but Noel will long be remembered as the best player in a below-average class of basketball talent. If he had remained in the 2013 class, he would probably be #3 or #4 rather than #1.
With all that said, Noel was on track to be as dominant a shot blocker as Anthony Davis was in 2011-12. Davis blocked 13.8% of shot attempts, and Noel 13.2%. Who knows what he could have done if he were able to finish the season?