Since the very day seventeen-year-old Nerlens Noel committed to play basketball at the University of Kentucky during his senior year at Everett High School (Tilton, NH), draft experts began debating when he would be selected in the 2013 NBA Draft. His flashes of excellence mixed in with proof of his inexperience and lack of developed basketball skills during his first few months at Kentucky only heightened the argument both for and against Noel as an NBA prospect. In a game against Florida on February 12, Noel tore his ACL, knocking him out of the top spot in many mock drafts, while some experts continued to hold onto his potential.
To this day and for many days going forward, anyone who has ever watched Nerlens Noel has speculated as to how good of an NBA player he will be. Plenty of people will tell you that he is a certain bust and a complete waste of a pick; others will say that he is a multi-year all-star. I am here to make the case for both.
Why Nerlens Noel is the Next Big Bust
It is worth mentioning that Noel’s dropping from the projected number one pick all the way to number six definitely takes some of the pressure off of him, particularly in his first year or two. However, the pressure all came pouring back on the instant he was traded. The fact that before playing an NBA game (or even a full college season), he is equated to Jrue Holiday, one of the best young point guards in the NBA, places a ton of pressure on his value as a player. It doesn’t help that he will be playing in Philadelphia, likely the toughest sports city in the nation.
I am starting with this because arguing that he will be a bust is probably the easier and more straightforward argument of the two. Quite simply, he has yet to prove himself. He is not even a year older than I am (and I just graduated high school), yet he was the number six pick in the NBA Draft. He only played in 24 college games, most of them against low-level opponents. The big thing for me is that I have yet to see him make real basketball plays. If you look at his highlight tapes, you see tons of high-flying dunks and acrobatic blocks– but when do you ever see him backing down on an opponent? When do you see him hit a jump shot? When do you see him go up against another quality big man down low and not get dominated?
The argument against Noel is as simple as that: we have yet to see any evidence that he is a great basketball player. There are plenty of top athletes in the world, but it takes a ton of finesse to be a good big man in the NBA– and “finesse” is just about the last word you would ever hear anyone use to describe Nerlens Noel. Do I even need to mention that he is coming off a torn ACL and only weighs 206 pounds?
Why Nerlens Noel is the Next Big Thing
If you have seen Man of Steel, you certainly know that it was not as good of a movie as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. However, already declaring Snyder’s Superman trilogy, just one movie into it, as inferior to Nolan’s Batman trilogy is completely unfair. In truth, we can only evaluate them on an equal playing field when looking at the first movie in each trilogy. There, I would say Man of Steel takes the win over Batman Begins. How can we automatically rule the Batman trilogy to be better than the Superman trilogy when we have only seen the beginning and likely weakest part of the trilogy?
Now let’s look at last year’s number one pick and former Kentucky big man, Anthony Davis. In January and February, nobody was saying Davis was even a top-five prospect (just like no one was saying Batman Begins is the beginning of something special); he was still considered second-best on his team behind Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It was Davis’s performance in March and April (the next parts of the trilogy) that really opened scouts’ eyes to his athleticism and talent.
Noel, because of his injury, did not even have the second half of his season to show off his talent. Based on the development curve he was on, it is reasonable to assume that Noel would have proven himself to be far and away the top player in this year’s draft. Don’t believe me? Compare these highlights in his first collegiate game to this, just two months later.
It will only take you one minute of game action or highlight tape to see that Nerlens Noel is an incredible athlete. The combination of his length and speed is probably greater than just about any big man in the entire NBA. That may sound like an exaggeration, but name me a current NBA player 6’11” or taller who runs the floor like Noel does and can fly as high as he does. He recorded 2.1 steals per game in college, which is an unheard of number for someone of his size, not to mention his colossal 4.4 blocks per game.
Many people will say, “Well, he’s a great athlete, but that doesn’t mean he can play basketball.” Remember Kevin Garnett? Remember Dwight Howard? Both Garnett (5th overall in 1995) and Howard (1st overall in 2004) came straight out of high school into the NBA, at the exact same height and similar build, and it was tough to find anyone who was not saying the exact same thing about the two. Garnett has fifteen all-star appearances to go along with his 2004 MVP and 2008 NBA champion trophies. Howard has seven all-star appearances, five All-NBA First Team appearances, and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
I am not saying Noel is the next Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard; I am just saying the questions about a 6’11” prospect’s skillset and lack of “beef” have been proven wrong in the past.
A lot of experts have stayed away from Noel because of his ACL tear that will likely keep him out until December, but two months for a player who just turned 19 means nothing. Blake Griffin sat out his entire rookie season with a knee injury and has not looked back since. Both Garnett and Howard took a few years to develop in the NBA. Any concern with Noel’s ACL injury is foolish. He is 19 years old without any history. His rehab is ahead of schedule. He is not Greg Oden. Noel will not be expected to deliver in his first year or two, nor should he be. Twenty years from now, we could be looking at Noel’s Wikipedia page and see something like this.
Nerlens Noel, the highest profile player in the 2013 NBA Draft, perfectly epitomizes the enigma that is this draft. The truth is, nobody– not Philadelphia, not any scouts, not Noel’s family, not even Noel himself– knows whether Noel is the next big thing or the next big bust.