Expected draft position: Top 3
College career: Fresh off a National Championship, Kentucky saw six of its players drafted into the NBA, four of which were first-round picks. Yet, John Calipari re-tooled, as only he knows how to do, bringing along four top-20 recruits, including the No. 1 rated high school prospect in the country, Nerlens Noel. This marked the fourth straight year in which Calipari's Wildcats were atop the recruiting trail, which had several college basketball buffs marveling at the athleticism and potential of his young squad.
Cue the bright lights of the pristine Barclays Center, as the new look Wildcats were set to tip off against Mark Turgeon's Maryland Terrapins. The stage was set for Turgeon's sophomore center, Alex Len to make a statement against Calipari's latest protégé by taking advantage of his youthfulness to generate some buzz of his own. After scoring the first two points of the game, Noel's offensive looks came few and far between. He scored just one more bucket the entire game while watching Len's brilliance from the sidelines as he was riddled with foul trouble much of the first half. Suffice to say, this wasn't the greatest start to the season for a heralded Kentucky recruit.
But while Len rode this storm for an entire season, it was Noel who shrugged it off and incessantly exhibited growth in each game.
Yet, the turbulent season of Kentucky proved to be too much for the young Wildcats, as the players never developed the cohesion typically associated with Calipari led teams. The remaining constituents to the program's top recruiting class proved to be more hype than substance, as preexisting doubts about their position and arising concerns over Calipari's ability to teach his kids led the team in flux for the duration of the season. Alex Poythress, long known during his high school days for his elite motor, was repeatedly benched for a lack of effort. Archie Goodwin, who Calipari likened to Tyreke Evans prior to season, hijacked the team's offense on a number of occasions with his poor shot selection and frantic drives to the basket. And then there was Ryan Harrow, who succumbed to the pressures of living up to Kentucky's impossibly-high standards of point guard play, wilted at almost any sign of a full court press by the opposition.
But it was Noel who became the rock in the middle for a team lacking any sense of direction. After being rightfully criticized in high school for poor body language on the court when things went adrift, he emerged as a leader, understanding his role on the team, fighting for loose balls at every opportunity and controlling the entire paint for a team susceptible to several defensive breakdowns on a given play.
The nightmare of a season continued, and on February 12th, a game against SEC rival Florida, Noel went down with a torn left ACL, ending his year after just 24 games and eliminating any remnants of hope fans still had of Kentucky making any semblance of noise come tournament time. This was the second knee scare Noel had dealt with, the first being a fractured growth plate in the left knee that he suffered during pregame layups in January of his sophomore season in high school. This became a topic of concern as of late, as reports came out that Noel rushed back from his injury in time for summer AAU ball, leading folks to believe his knee never fully healed.
Offense: Noel is far from a finished product on this end, often being helpless with the ball even when teams ostensibly placed smaller defenders on him. He wasn't afforded the same luxury of a spaced floor that Anthony Davis received -- Goodwin and Poythress do most of their work in the lane, whereas Marquis Teague, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb all kept defenders honest and unable to dig down into the paint at will. Noel rarely drew double teams; single covering him while staying with his quick first step seemed to do the trick, as his poor touch around the basket didn't inspire much fear in his opponent.
Kentucky's guards struggled making entry passes to him deep in the paint (seriously, this is an epidemic in college basketball), hence having only 51 percent of his FG attempts at the rim assisted, per hoop-math.com, an unusually low number for a big man of his stature and physical gifts. This prompted Noel to work more as a facilitator in the high post, displaying great court vision with crisp passes to cutters moving to the basket or coming off curls along the wings. As the opposition began to key in on this, defenders crowded Noel, which he countered with his lightning quick first step and tremendous leaping and finishing ability. He runs the floor well in transition, can handle the ball effectively for his size, and has good hands -- though he does tend to fumble passes in traffic.
However Noel's most pressing shortcoming, at least early on, is free throw shooting. This was a huge reason why Kentucky was so averse to running plays for the big man on the low block. Its one thing for a rookie to not get the calls from the refs, but it's an entirely new problem when you can't take advantage of the few times you do get to the charity stripe. In order for Noel to stay on the floor, he'll have to improve his shooting.
Defense: The first thing you will notice about Noel on defense is his ultra-quick reaction time, a feat unmatched by a prospect his size in recent memory. His presence in the paint alone causes players to second-guess themselves all night long, forcing guards to hoist awkward, high arcing floaters over him, some of which intermittently hit off the top of the backboard. He displays a quick "rejumpability," in that if you get him up in the air on a shot fake, he has the ability to still alter your shot on his second jump, an invaluable trait for any big man. He also exercises great verticality when defending against players attacking the basket (averaging just 2.6 fouls a contest), a term Roy Hibbert has revived in the playoffs.
Yet, his most impressive defensive proficiency comes in steals, where he feasted on passing lanes, using his quickness and 7'4 wingspan to his advantage. He led the SEC in both blocks (4.4) and steals (2.1) per game prior to his injury. He struggled early on switching onto guards as teams tried moving him away from the paint, but once he gained more comfort staying out on the perimeter, he turned into the defensive stalwart that he was projected to be.
As is the case for most young, athletic big men, Noel tends to rely more on sheer athleticism rather than finding a man and boxing him out. This hasn't hurt him nearly as much at the college level, and what he lacks in fundamentals he more than makes up for with his high motor.
Pro potential/Wizards fit: Noel has the makings of a true defensive anchor at the next level with the ability to dominate the game in ways other than scoring. Players such as Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler and even a modern day Kevin Garnett are irreplaceable commodities to playoff teams. They not only emerge as leaders on the court due to their smarts and hustle, but can completely change the outlook of a game based on their presence alone in the paint.
Of course, the Noel deliberation begins and ends with the ACL tear he suffered back in February. Questions about his athleticism post-injury are of course the hotbed of discussion, as well as taking a gamble on a 6'10 18-year-old that has dealt with two knee injuries in the span of four years. While it's foolish to compare Noel to the likes of Adrian Peterson, it's hard to ignore the advancements in medicine, along with improvements in the rehab process for ACL tears. He has only begun to scratch the surface, and for the sake of discussion it's not hyperbolic to assume he makes up for any lost athleticism with a more refined game or a better understanding of defenses.
The potential is through the roof for Noel. This is not a one-year rental, but a long-term investment that could pay off by his second season should the organization calibrate the bulk of their focus on getting him fully healthy. The Wizards would undoubtedly have to get lucky in the lottery to jump into the top 3 of the draft order for a chance to draft Noel, and would have to weigh all of their options before taking him over the likes of an Otto Porter or Ben McLemore. However, given his game-changing ability, there may not be a better option out there.