When the Sixers made their draft-night trade for Nerlens Noel, the sixth overall pick by the New Orleans Pelicans, my phone blew up. I was flooded with tweets, texts, calls and emails. People I knew in Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland and anywhere else I have lived, know two things: I am a huge Kentucky Wildcats fan, and I live in Philadelphia.
So after the initial excitement of the Sixers getting a UK player, and one of his caliber, I had to think about it. Was this a good deal for the Sixers? I mean, they did just trade away their young, all-star point guard. And they are taking a bit of a gamble on a big man with knee issues. We saw that last year. No need to rehash the Andrew Bynum debacle.
This is different.
I like this move for the Sixers, in terms of upside. There was a reason that he was projected as a No. 1 pick. He has the tools. He has the ability. And he’s only going to improve.
Noel turned 19 just a couple of months before the draft. Think about that. This kid burst onto the scene only a few years ago. He was reclassified for the recruiting process, and it wasn’t until after his junior year that people really started to take notice. He was projected as a lottery pick at that point. He was 16.
Now, I know the arguments: Noel is coming off a serious knee injury, he isn’t an offensive machine and he’s undersized.
My answer to those arguments: That’s fine. Yes, Noel is coming off an injury, but Bynum, like some other highly-touted big men, has chronic knee issues. Noel never had an issue with his knees. It was an ACL tear. While those are never great, they are certainly not the fearsome career-enders that they once were.
Noel’s been rehabbing and has been quite diligent about it, according to the folks I’ve talked to in Kentucky and in Alabama, where the surgery took place. The knee injury recovery spectrum spans Adrian Peterson and Derrick Rose. I’m optimistic and am leaning toward the Peterson end of the spectrum.
As for his offensive game, he’s not going to average 25 points, but it's not as poor as you think. Noel has quick feet, especially for a big man. That enables him to be active around the basket and get those put-backs, layups and bunny shots. That’s where a majority of his points are going to come from. If I told you that he’d average 12 rebounds, 10 points and three blocks a game, you’d probably take that. I know I would.
And besides, he’s in the game to be a defensive juggernaut, a disruptor around the basket and to rebound. He does all of those things very, very well. He has excellent footwork, a nose for defense and is a natural shot blocker. It’s not a stretch when you read that NBA team officials say that he’s the purest shot-blocking big man they’ve seen in well over a decade. It’s a true artform and skill. Shot blocking is an instinct; it's about being in the right place at the right time. Noel is usually in that place at that time.
And yes, he is undersized. He played the season, before the ACL tear, at 6-foot-10 and around 225-230 pounds. That is still a little smaller than ideal, but he’ll bulk up. Plus, the days of the big, lumbering center -- like Shaq -- are over. “They just don’t make ’em like they used to,” so to speak.
Beyond the three issues just addressed, some have argued Noel fell to sixth on draft night because of his entourage. I talked with a number of reporters who have covered Noel from day one on UK’s campus all the way through the draft. Some of them chalk up these rumblings to sour grapes by agents he didn’t hire, and other reporters I spoke with have no idea where this information was coming from.
To quote one of the guys who’s covered Noel for a year now: “He was a bit of a loner, but not in a bad way. He liked to do his own thing. He would just show up unannounced at the Children’s Hospital and just hang with the patients. He’s very smart. Don’t let the soft voice, quiet demeanor and stoic expressions fool you. He’s got quite the personality.”
So no offense to a few agents who may have met with him, or tried to meet with him, but I’ll take those rumblings -- which have yet to be proven -- with a small grain of salt.
I realize that some may read this and say I am biased. I am biased towards Kentucky players. But I’m also more critical of them.
I’ve been watching Kentucky basketball for as long as I can remember, and gone are the days when I could grow with a player, watch him develop for four years and win. One-and-dones have replaced that experience, especially with the University of Kentucky basketball team. That also allows me to be much more discerning when I do watch the players and the games, because if they don’t get it done after one year, as is the expectation, the question as to why is always at the forefront.
On last year’s team, Noel was the only one who improved. The season, of course, was a great disappointment. As soon as Noel went down in that Florida game in March, most of the Big Blue Nation knew that was it for tournament hopes. There goes the best player.
Keep in mind, Noel was going after a ball on the court in a blowout loss to Florida. That shows you a little bit about how he plays this game. And I look forward to watching him grow, develop and and win here in Philadelphia.